Icons and Living Icons: The Relevance of Icons in our Spiritual Life

Windows to Heaven

Icons can be described as an acutely sensitive reaction to the reality of Christ’s incarnation.  As asserted by Zelensky and Gilbert,  icons in the Orthodox world,  encompass a tradition which reflects on the central mystery of Christendom, whereby the Infinite has consented to being circumscribed by the limitations of matter.  Indeed, ‘an icon is an instrument through which the knowledge of God, in his mysterious human incarnation, becomes accessible to humankind.’

Thus, the icon enables the human being to go beyond the material reality, to reveal the realm of the spiritual world behind it – a transfigured world. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the icon is one of the manifestations of the Tradition sacred to the Church in the same level as the oral and the written tradition.  Moreover, it is one of the great means which serves to pour forth the beauty of Christ, alongside the prayer and the intellectual culture of the Eastern Church, a beauty which is the dominant motif of the entire Byzantine spiritual tradition.  This echoes Augustine’s ‘Beauty ever ancient, ever new’ logion.

An icon is an instrument through which the knowledge of God, in his mysterious human incarnation, becomes accessible to humankind

The term ‘iconographer’ (he who makes icons) comes from two Greek words – eikon (image) and graphe (to write). The idea is that the iconographer writes the icon, while the beholder reads it. It is worth noting that in the Russian language, the term used to paint or draw is used in connection with secular painting, whereas the idea regarding icons is that of ‘writing’ an icon.  In contrast to secular painting, the iconographer ‘writes’ the icon, which in turn, echoes the idea of writing down the text of a certain aspect of the story of our salvation, using images, rather than words.

Writing an icon allows the iconographer to participate in the incarnation’s eternal mystery; he uses matter to represent figures and events from the spiritual dimension.  The worshipper, in turn, by ‘reading’ this text through the activity of prayer, also actively participates in this spiritual activity. Inherently, the icon ‘promotes effectively union with God’, in turn leading to theosis – the participation of the human with the divine.  As stated by Evdokímov, through the icon God fills our heart with radiance so as to give us a knowledge of the glory and splendour which can be beheld on Christ’s face.  The icon, therefore, becomes a doxology or river of glory which the Church sings to God.

Living Icons

‘To make an icon, one must first come to dispassionateness, a purity, so that the Saint can guide every stroke of the painting.  It is all to be pure prayer.  One cannot paint a Saint except if he live the same kind of life as the Saint.’
M. Basil Pennington

While describing the thorough preparation the monk has to go through throughout the whole process of icon-painting, this insight by the late Basil Pennington sheds light on the monk’s life, a life steeped in the sources i.e. the Fathers of the Church.  The splendour on the icons must have already seeped the life of the monk painting it.  After all, ‘writing’ an icon can only be derived from the master’s interior resources. It is of no wonder that certain iconographers like Andrej Rublëv were canonised.

Thus the undeniable importance of monasticism, which heralds an importance even in the third millennium. By their witness, the religious people invite the other Christians to join them ‘…where worry ceases and life begins.’

‘The monastic vocation is an appeal to the new life in Christ’. (Sr. Nectaria Paradisi).  Monks observe and draw lessons and transmit them to whoever comes for spiritual counselling.  This reflects the effective assistance of monasticism to people who live in the world’s upheavals, uncertainties, leading to a veritable diaikonia (Emilianos Timiadis).

‘Writing’ an icon can only be derived from the master’s interior resources

In her paper, Sr. Nectaria Paradisi, explains that all forms of monastic life are the expression of the one and same ideal: theosis through the purification of the heart, and the illumination of the nous by the grace and energy of the Holy Spirit.

As asserted by Timiadis, askesis as the principle of meaningful daily conduct, should be created more objectively. One should examine the close link between true evangelical life and askesis, where ascetic discipline can be envisaged as feeding and sustaining us (St. John Chrysostom). In the light of St. John Chrysostom it should be stated that ascetic values concern every baptised in every place and in whatever situation she/he may be found. Moreover, Timiadis urges a return to the very centre of our thinking and of our living.  All this should aim towards reaching the fullness, the pleroma.

Moreover, askesis offers an inestimable service to reduce carnal needs, endless appetites, to subdue the material element for the spiritual. This does not imply a suppression of the physical, but rather, the notion of celibacy itself mirrors the waiting for the realisation of the Kingdom of God, the parousia (Lacroix).

The resonating quality emphasised in a monk is the importance of vigilance and watchfulness, henceforth referred to as nepsis.  The urge for watchfulness goes back to the earliest abbas who fled to lead a solitary life in the desert, in the light of Arsenius’ maxim: ‘Fuge, tace, quiesce’. This was the call for contemplative prayer, in a world confined to the cell, where “The monk’s cell is that furnace of Babylon in which the three children found the Son of God; but it is also the pillar of cloud, out of which God spoke to Moses.”

Ascetic values concern every baptised in every place and in whatever situation she/he may be found

It suffices to have eyes to see and ears to hear, lest the same fate as that of the Bride in the Song of Songs would befall to the one who notices that the Bridegroom has long since passed.

A godly monk sees beyond the apparent and deceitful exterior symptoms.  He goes deeper and deeper in order to find out the real causes and, consequently, to pronounce what people ought to do. This can verily describe such people as Aemilianos, the one time Hegumen of Simonos Petras who is described by Pennington as: ‘…the scribe who is learned in the Kingdom of God of whom Jesus speaks – he is “the head of the household who can bring forth from his storeroom both the new and the old” (Matthew 13:52).’

These great attempts at holiness where what inspired and gave rise to the hesychast movement, wherein the Thaboric light is perceived, and the Transfiguration takes place.  This is described at great length in the so aptly named chapter The Luminous Silence of Hesychasm in Standing in God’s Holy Fire by McGuckin.  It is worth commenting on the analogy between the world of icons and that of the monks.  An icon’s beauty and spirituality is contemplated and its theology imparted, while the monk in contemplation is transfigured by the beauty of Christ in the divine light.

The vocation of each Christian is to refuse to be shaped by the patterns of this world, but rather, to take responsibility for it, in order to transcend it and transfigure it by the renewal of the mind.  Within this perspective, the Holy Spirit becomes the sanctifying energy who communicates the uncreated grace of God, so that it enables men to become partakers of divine nature (Paradisi), in the light of Pt1-4.

The vocation of each Christian is to refuse to be shaped by the patterns of this world, but rather, to take responsibility for it

It is worth appealing to Clément in his statement of the vocation of humankind.  He says the following:
La vocazione dell’uomo: realizzare la propria umanita’ divenendo Dio mediante la grazia, raggiungendo cioè la pienezza della via.  Fare della propria umanità il tempio della gloria.

This glory practically unites the human being to God.  By way of conclusion, I want to relate an episode of one desert father narrated in Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert.  They used to say that a certain old man asked God that he might see the Fathers.  He saw them all, with the exception of Abba Anthony.  This old man asked him that showed them to him, ‘Where is Abba Anthony?’  The other one replied, ‘Wheresoever God is, there is Anthony.’

Theosis is every human’s ultimate fulfilment.  The task of the monk is to show the way to the rest of humanity.

Dorianne teaches English at a secondary school and she is currently doing my PhD in theology, on ecumenical dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. She was involved in catechism with children and adolescents for many years and she currently coordinates the theology course within the PFI Institute. Dorianne is a member of the Malta Ecumenical Commission and also secretary to the Draft Writing Committee for the material to be prepared for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity for the year 2020. She is actively involved in her parish, in the Sunday School, where she coordinates and facilitates catechism for the parents.

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