I was privileged to attend a public high school that had an interesting program on interreligious understanding. Participating students not only learned about various religious traditions, we actually visited their places of worship. We visited a German-speaking Lutheran church (remember, this is Cleveland we’re talking about), where we saw depictions of Mary and Jesus with blond hair. We visited a Nation of Islam mosque, which had a fellowship hall underneath it just like the room where many churches hold their coffee hour. We visited a Buddhist temple where a monk talked about the different meditation techniques used by visitors. And we attended a Russian Orthodox church, where a lay leader told us to put away our pens and notebooks; it was disrespectful to take notes about someone’s faith. We must listen, instead, and use our hearts as well as our minds to understand what he was telling us.
But we never visited the actual services or meditations of the various mosques, temples, and churches, so it was not until I was in college that I saw Orthodox worship in action. I went to a Greek Orthodox church in Cambridge, England, which used the local Anglican church for its service. I was amused and touched to see parishioners coming and going, arriving late, sneaking out for a quick smoke or conversation with a friend. It had the flavor of Thanksgiving with your family. And like Thanksgiving, everyone got a kiss when people arrived. Large icons of the saints were placed at the back of the church, near the entrance, and people of all ages bent down and kissed the hands or feet of the saints. They were familiar, loved. To my Protestant’s eyes it felt almost as if they were taken for granted, but in a good way—like your favorite uncle, or the mother you can’t live without. They were family.
That was also the impression I got when this past week I asked my Orthodox friends to tell me what they’d most want people unfamiliar with icons to know about them. One friend wrote that the saints in icons are people, just like us. “It’s a relationship.”
Think of pictures of loved ones so precious you would keep them in a locket. The people they depict might be far away; they might even no longer be walking around with us on earth, but they are no less real, no less loved. Our relationship with them transcends death.
This is how it is with icons. Icons are known as “windows to heaven,” because they depict and help us grasp the enduring communion of saints. They are like portable thin places—those places, in Celtic spirituality, where the veil between worlds is thin, where time and eternity overlap, where the living and the dead can be present to each other.
When first introduced to icons and icon veneration, Protestants often feel uncomfortable at first. Is this idol worship, the worship of things and people instead of God? This is why Orthodox theologians carefully explain the distinction between “worship” and “veneration.” We worship someone greater than ourselves, the One God, the Ground of Our Being, the Creator of Universes. Idolatry, then, is replacing God with an object or person or ideology. It is false worship, worship of something that makes us feel good and safe. It is trying to recreate God in our image, an image that won’t demand too much of us, won’t push us out of comfortable places or require us to grow.
Veneration, on the other hand, is about recognition. Recognition of Christ, whether in images of Christ or in images of the “little christs” who have gone before us. It is about respect, and love. It is akin to the respect we feel for a family matriarch or patriarch, a beloved and wise elder.
Consider today’s readings. Hebrews speaks of the communion of saints in a familiar way, as a great cloud of witnesses, those who have walked the ways of faith before us, who have modeled godliness and love. They are our forebears in the faith, those who encourage us by their example and their presence. They are those who point us to Christ and to the fearlessness we must have if we are to follow Christ in this world that does not know him.
But whereas Hebrews emphasizes the familiarity of the saints, the first letter of John speaks of the mystery of the life to come. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, but what we will be has not yet been revealed.” That is, we are one in the family of God, and yet much of our future is unknown. Those who have gone before us are not bound by the same illusions and restrictions that bind us in this world. What they experience is something we cannot know right now, but we have faith that the same God holds us both. We are family with each other and with Christ, and yet what that means we cannot fully know.
This tension between the familiar, on the one hand, and the mysterious and unknowable on the other reflects the place icons can have in our spiritual life. They can help us relate to saints that feel too grand and remote to us. Maybe we can develop a relationship with those saints that allows us to kiss and caress them like members of our family. But they also represent to us that we do not know what we will become.
It makes me think of C. S. Lewis’s story of the imprisoned artist and her son. Imagine, he says, a woman, an artist, who is imprisoned in a dungeon with high walls. There is only a single window in one wall, through which the woman can see only sky. Now, the woman went into the dungeon pregnant, and she birthed her son there. The boy grows up knowing nothing but life in the dungeon and one small patch of sky. But his mother, hoping that her child will one day be released, draws him pictures of the reality outside, of trees and other people and animals and things he’s never seen. She tries to teach him what the outside world will be like when he finally experiences it for himself.
But one day they have a difficult conversation—one of those disagreements in which neither side can figure out why they’re disagreeing. But eventually the woman realizes that her son has a mistaken assumption. “ ‘But,’ she gasps, ‘you didn’t think that the real world was full of lines drawn in lead pencil?’ ‘What,’ says the boy. ‘No pencil marks there?’ And instantly his whole notion of the outer world becomes a blank.”
The artist did the best she could to teach her son about the real world, but it was ultimately beyond his understanding, because he did not have the mental categories that we who live in the real world have by virtue of our experience. Lewis tells us that, similarly, we cannot know what awaits us on the other side of death. “ ‘We know not what we shall be’; but we may be sure that we shall be more, not less, than we were on earth. Our natural experiences . . . are only like the drawing, like penciled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in the risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape, not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the rising sun.”
So an icon is a window to heaven not in its life-likeness, but in its strangeness. In fact, I once heard an Orthodox icon maker explain that icons are deliberately stylized, that icon makers would never make a naturalistic icon, not only because of tradition (though that is part of it), but also because it is meant to represent something other than the wholly familiar, something more heavenly than of-this-world. Unlike the artist in Lewis’s fable, the icon maker is trying to evoke that which cannot be known or explained at this time.
The icon maker I mentioned above also touched on the immediacy of the icon. He contrasted icons with pictures. “You know when you look at a picture of a lion, the lion is not there in the room with you. But looking at an icon is akin to glancing slant-wise into a mirror: you see a lion, and you realize that the lion is in the very room with you.” So icons are windows into heaven, a heaven that is both familiar and strange, full of saints known and unknown. Look at an icon, and realize that heaven is right there in that room with you.
And if gazing into an icon is like being offered a glimpse into heaven, it also brings a bit of heaven down to earth. Orthodox spirituality emphasizes the blessedness and inherent goodness of all creation—no Calvinist “total depravity” here! Orthodox believers see the Incarnation of Jesus Christ not simply as the divine taking on human form, but as the ennobling of all creation. God’s work at restoring humanity is also aimed at the restoration of the universe. This emphasis on creation has made Orthodox believers some of the most active and passionate Christian voices in the environmental movement.
I want to end by mentioning Our Lady, Mother of Ferguson, by Mark Dukes—has anyone here seen that icon? It shows the Mother of God as a Black woman, arms outstretched in the traditional orans prayer position, like this. At her center is a gold halo, in which a black silhouette of a man stands, arms raised also in the orans position, in the center of a gun sight, a target. And you realize that Christ, in this icon, has raised his arms not only in prayer and blessing, but in surrender as well. “Hands up, don’t shoot.” This contemporary icon is powerful because it captures both ends of the continuum I mentioned earlier. It contains the familiar: portraying Mary in her grief as the mother of a son torn from her by state violence. And it troubles the familiar by insisting that these deaths, the death of Jesus Christ and the death of Michael Brown, are subject to the judgment of God. It brings God and the Holy Family into the context of American racism and violence and it shows God’s solidarity, not with the power of the state, but with the powerless, the abused citizen. We who often benefit from our political reality need this troubling icon to shake us out of the complacency of “this is just how it is,” to illustrate the gospel anew in our culture. We need new ways of seeing that God is on the side of the broken, the lonely, the oppressed, and the poor.
Maybe this reflection has inspired you to try praying with or meditating on icons. If you’d like I can rustle up some book recommendations or print some copies of icons. You don’t need anything expensive; my first icon was purchased at Oxfam for 95 pence, and all the rest didn’t cost much more than that. But truly, I would bet that everyone in this room has an icon in their home. Perhaps it is a picture of a loved one or an item made or given by them that inspires you to take courage from the presence of the saints, that reminds you to reflect on the difference they made in your lives. Maybe it is something that, when you contemplate it, makes you try to improve your lives by their example, to rejoice in the gifts God has given you in your fellow saints. Remember what my friend said about the saints being people like us—not all saints have icons made depicting them. Some live in old photographs, in Hug pillows such as the ones Polly gave to so many, or even only in our hearts. They are no less real than we are—maybe they are more so. For them, someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the rising sun.