Monday, October 4, 2004

On Icons, Providence and Pain

[This is a very long post, the whole of which may be of interest only to my family and close friends. Obviously you're all welcome to read it, but I do get into some personal stuff by the end of it. I recommend the first two-thirds of it, particularly my discussion of icons, for all readers.]

Dear family, friends and readers:

Today has been remarkable, truly unforgettable day. I’ll cut to the chase. I had my RCIA time with Father Ramon again today (Monday) after a hiatus for Teacher’s Day last Monday. It’s always a pleasure to see Fr. Ramon; he’s such a cheerful and peace-giving man. (Plus, I love his Spanish accent and only slightly broken English.) As at our first meeting, we began with a short time of prayer before an icon of the Crucified Christ. I’m no iconographer, but I think it is a Byzantine-style crucifix. It is about a little more than a foot tall, a few inches less in width, and virtually identical to this one:

Let me restate my impressions from this first meeting (Monday 21 Sept. 2004):

My first session of RCIA yesterday, with Fr. Ramon, turned out to be one of the most refreshing times I've had in weeks. In fact, it began with one of the most powerful encounters with the Risen Christ that I've ever experienced. No guff. I have been dry and tense for some time now. But yesterday I was filled with an indescribable peace like water rushing over an ancient bone-dry desert. In addition, I learned with almost mystical force the power of icons. It was a golden day, but I still need a lot of watering.

What about this “mystical force of icons”? First, some background. Probably about 8 or 9 years ago, not too long after I’d become a very serious, and very fundamentalist, Christian, I stumbled upon a small and apparently old icon. It was a simple wooden crucifix gilded** with shiny gold paint onto which was adhered the same image as the icon above on a slip of paper. Whose it was I still don’t know; but I suspect it flowed into my life along the tiny tributary of Greek Orthodoxy that once coursed through my grandmother’s earlier years and my dad’s childhood.

At the time, I was aesthetically and (especially) theologically light years away from appreciating icons, but, from some enigmatic reason, this little icon was magnetizing. Fighting a vague Protestant, iconoclastic guilt, I hung the icon over my bed on the curtain border, where it stayed for years, until I took it to college, gradually became a convinced Calvinist, left it in a box somewhere, and then failed to bring it here to Taiwan. (I’m sure, God willing, I can recover it from either my mom’s house or my dad’s stuff.) For whatever reason, that little icon was out of sight but never really out of mind.

And then I walked into that little chapel next to Fr. Ramon’s office at Providence University (靜宜大學) and was almost literally dragged to my knees. There, on a short little table against the wall, was the icon, bigger and thicker and clearer, but the same image! Providence took me out at the knees![1] I was taken aback, since I could feel my knees giving out, as if under the steady pressure of angels, and I didn’t want to bow.

Bowing, you see, especially in the presence of religious paraphernalia or personnel, is a very un-Protestant thing to do. I still have Sunday school images of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refusing to bow to the idol of Nebuchadnezzer, and that image of iconophobic defiance became a sort of internal model for me. Now, I’m hardly defending old Neb’s idol as anything other than pagan blasphemy. I am simply telling you how humbling it was for me to bow before that icon. The irony is that I have bowed numerous times before God, only then based on man-made human musical notes or on my own mental images (visual of verbal) of God. We all bow; Catholics and Orthodox are just honest that we can do so based on the testimony of our ears, brains *and* eyes.

But bow I did. I cannot explain how or why I knew this, but when I saw that icon, I saw Christ. Not to bow to Him as He made Himself, His pain and power, clear to me would have been as insulting as not to bow to Him in the flesh. Because you see, the whole point of icons is that, in a mysterious way, they do indeed partake of Christ’s glory. Icons are visual lightning rods that act as signals for us that, in Christ, God became man. In Christ the Messiah, God literally entered our world, and icons are but enduring markers of that “eucatastrophe” (to palm a neologism from J.R.R. Tolkien). Icons are visual relics of the Incarnation, just as relics are tangible embers from the fire of the Holy One, as in the Transfiguration of Christ, burning in a believer. Relics, like Elijah’s skeleton and Peter’s shadow, quite are given by God as scars of divine glory. Relics are given by God the Holy Spirit to send reverberations of His immanent grace through time and space to others. Icons, in turn, are given to send similar reverberations of hope, faith and sanctification through the whole human person. As Vladimir Lossky says in _The Meaning of Icons_, "It is not the purpose of the icon to touch its contemplator. Neither is it its purpose to recall one or the other human experience of natural life; it is meant to lead every human sentiment as well as reason and all other qualities of human nature on the way to illumination."

As I bowed and prayed before that icon, I realized something elemental about icons. They are a litmus test for your devotion to a truly incarnated Christ. To cringe at kissing and touching and bowing before icons is to cringe, in an admittedly oblique way, at Christ the God-Man. Imagine you had the chance to live the Gospels; to walk and talk and eat and sleep with Christ. Now imagine the veneration of icons as a form of religious acting (in the tradition of method acting), or as a dress rehearsal for living (or performing) the Gospels. If I am unwilling to bow before a little crafted reminder of God’s love for me in Christ, how willing would I be to bow before Jesus, a human being? If I am unwilling to kiss the wooden feet of an icon, merely as a sign of honor to one shown in that icon, how willing would I be to kiss the dirty, knobbed feet of a first-century Jewish man?

To anticipate an assured (Protestant) objection, no, you can’t say meeting Jesus would “just be different”, that you “could just tell” who He really is and therefore would bow. If you had lived to see and hear and smell Jesus when He walked this earth, you would not be able (unless you a very keen Docetist) “just to tell” who this man, this *allzumenschlicher Mann* (all-too-human man), was according to the flesh. If you see nothing but eccentricity and religious excess in icons there is a very good chance you would see nothing but the same in Jesus the incarnate Christ. You may as well say you honor the state though you dishonor its traffic signs. Their authority devolves onto its authority; to scorn the former is to scorn the latter. Icons are the traffic signs of God’s Kingdom, only they read “STOP,” “REMEMBER,” “BOW,” “WEEP,” “KNEEL,” “SUBMIT,” “YIELD,” “KISS,” “EMBRACE,” and all the rest that it means to know Christ.

To anticipate a more fundamental objection, no, images are not blasphemous (against the first commandment) in the new covenant of incarnate grace. I can not and will not delve into a rigorous theological defense of icons – St. John Damascus did so far better centuries ago – but I will recall a few basic truths. First, God Himself, even in the Old Testament, ordained “graven images” when He ordained the construction of Temple paraphernalia. All of this, as the Book of Hebrews says plainly, was but an earthly, graven image of the true Temple in Heaven. The cleverest – and yet most absurd – reply to this fact is that those images were meant only for the Holy of Holies, not for the mass of Israelites to worship with. First of all, however, since when did the ten commandments apply to only various sectors of space (viz., outside the curtain)? Second, even if these Old Testament graven images were meant for the inner sanctum of the Temple, that barrier has been exploded with the death of Christ so that, you guessed it, all believers have access to the mystery and icons of worship. If anything, the inmost gravenness of Temple worship has, by Christ's atonement, been cast outside the Temple over the whole earth, which is, as a matter of fact, is the animus of icons.

The second and more important basic truth about icons is that God Himself, in the New Testament, introduced a new “economy” of representation when He took on a human form in Christ. I repeat: God Himself made a graven image of God Himself. This was how God reached us; this was the signal that He did not reject the physical world; this was His sign that matter – whether a piece of wood or a human being – can and must be redeemed and transformed into His likeness. This was a new tactic but not a new strategy, for, as Fredrica Mathewes-Green says, “We are the original icons, since God was the first iconographer, making us in his image” (_At the Corner of East and Now_, New York: Tarcher/Putnam (2000), p. 178). Icons are nothing but humans’ more beautiful acts of cooperating with God in transforming all of Creation, from paintbrushes to families, into His likeness. As St. John Damascene says,

I adore one God, one Godhead but three Persons, God the Father, God the Son made flesh, and God the Holy Ghost, one God. … I worship Him clothed in the flesh, not as if it were a garment or He constituted a fourth person of the Trinity--God forbid. That flesh is divine, and endures after its assumption. Human nature was not lost in the Godhead, but just as the Word made flesh remained the Word, so flesh became the Word remaining flesh, becoming, rather, one with the Word through union.... Therefore I venture to draw an image of the invisible God, not as invisible, but as having become visible for our sakes through flesh and blood. I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead. I paint the visible flesh of God....

At any rate, there I was, bowing for the first time before an icon, unable to stand, hardly able to pray. My soul was at a loss for words. Neither could I lift my eyes; I was before the Lord hanging on the Cross *for me*. I was first driven into a blizzard of shame knowing He hung there for *my sins*. But then the winds died and I stood on a plain of hope, looking to the mountain of Christ’s return. My shame melted into joy: He hung there not just for my sins but to *forgive* them. I knew Christ was not really on the Cross anymore, as he icon depicted; but I’m not sure I would have recalled He actually was on the Cross without that icon’s depiction. It was one of the deepest encounters with God I’ve ever had; God reached straight into my eyes to my soul.

Incredibly, this week with Fr. Ramon was only slightly less amazing. At our first meeting, rather than dive into the Catechism as I expected to do – “I know you lahv dat book,” as Fr. Ramon said – he asked me to tell him about myself, “about de leetle Ellyot.” This caught me off-guard, but it led to the very encounter I just “painted.” This week we continued with the tale of the little Elliot. We went into the chapel again and I knelt before the Lord, before that holy icon, only this time feeling more courage to look at His image, and then, feeling more encouragement as He looked back at me.

We returned to Fr. Ramon’s office and he asked me to fill hi in on the past two weeks. To spare you the details, this led to a very deep and quite painful discussion of my feelings these days. He asked me to illustrate my feelings with oil pastels on a sheet of paper. I ended up drawing a mountain (covered with faith, hope, joy and love) cut in two by an empty chasm of “pain,” “fear,” and “ego”. The sides of the mountain were two lives that were stopped short of becoming one. Fr. Ramon helped me see that this divide is at the center of my being, and (sure enough) steps from my childhood. It is one of the deepest desires of my heart to see unity in all things. Hence my interest in bridging cultural gaps with language. Hence my interest in integrating huge, otherwise disparate fields of learning. Hence my ecumenical and missiological bent as a Christian. Hence, most deeply of all, my inexpressible yearning for a unified family; and, in turn, my attraction to females that fulfill that yearning with their own families.

To put it bluntly, Fr. Ramon helped me see that despite my strong and adventurous spirit, I am a very needy man. He helped me see that I have for years denied my needs: connubial and filial affection. He helped me see that once I acknowledged these legitimate but frightening needs, I sprang at the chance to meet them. I was like an unconscious man that wakes up to remember he is starving. I saw my dreams in the flesh and I knew I had to strike fast, to possess them forever, or I would lose them forever. Seeing the thing I wanted most – to be one with someone, to be fully accepted by someone, forever – I grasped at it with all I had – and thus scared it away. Like sand in my palm, precisely because I gripped it so tightly, I crushed it out of my grip. And here I am, in a delightful but lonely valley, left only with my pain and regret and shame.

As it turns out, however, this valley is exactly where Fr. Ramon said I need to be. I admit quite frankly that I am in denial, and that I am actively trying to bury painful memories and my unshakable sense of loss. But, he insisted, I must feel my pain, I must embrace my misery, I must stare at my fears, and I must admit my needs. Not to change now means stumbling again and again into the same kind of relationships: scaring away the one I love precisely because of my insatiable, needy love. I must go through the wall; I cannot just go to it and then away from it in a perpetual circle of denial. I must go into the desert before I can go into the Promised Land. I must go to the Cross before I can leave the Tomb.

And so he gave me the following homework, in big bold letters:


Below these words, he drew a heart – my heart – in two opposing sections with the rudiments of thread trying to bind them together all my life. My homework entails me spending about an hour every day until next Monday walking in the valley with Christ, not evading my pain, and not anesthetizing myself with immediate recovery. Hope is for the last few days of this inner pilgrimage; the desert and the Cross are for tonight and the next few days.

This means I will be fasting from blogging (including the daily Christian and Augustine quotes) until I finish the pilgrimage. I ask for your prayers. Be of good cheer, I really am on the path of wholeness, of holiness. One of the last things Fr. Ramon said to me before we closed in prayer is that Jesus, the human person, truly knows my pain. Just as I have heart torn with the hope of unity between all those I know and love, Jesus walked with a heart torn with the hope unity between all humans and God. Like me, Jesus was the child of divorced parents: his human nature and his divine nature were drawn from lovers – humanity and divinity – too long estranged. I know Jesus’ pain and He knows mine. “Jesus loves you, Elliot,” Fr. Ramon said. “He loves *you*.”

In His love, I bid you adieu until next week.

[1] A skeptic would see this as hardly more providential than basic odds, since there are only so many icons in the world, and even fewer styles of them to conform to. You may as well try to deny artistic originality because there are only so many canvasses and tubes of paint in the world. Or, more concretely, you may as well deny Providence in human lives because there are only so many humans and only so much genetic diversity among them. Providence does not have a mean; it has a meaning. As Abp. Fulton J. Sheen said decades ago in his discussion of Islamic Mariology, “There is a fineness in the details of Providence.” The goodness of Providence does not consist in its manifold bizarreness, but rather in its phenomenological and mystical harmony in the Body of Christ in a real, sociohistorical, existential situation. God fits His miracles to the lives of His Church, and outside that fellowship, let’s be frank, His hand is mostly baffling.

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