I’ve been having some struggles of late, wrestling with the demons and ghosts from my past and trying to figure out how I’m supposed to apply my Orthodox faith to all this. It’s made me want to, frankly, curl up in a little ball and pull the blankets way up over my head.
The disciplines of faith are extremely difficult right now. Prayer is hard, study is nearly impossible, and I have not been able to be in my church for a Sunday morning in almost three weeks. That is never good. And, out of that old Protestant sense of guilt, I have found myself running and hiding like Adam in the Garden.
Then the other morning, as I was loading the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher, pouring coffee in the travel mug and getting ready to head out the door, He caught my eye.
(Yes, I said He caught my eye.)
I have an icon of Jesus right smack above my kitchen sink: Christ the Pantocrater. This particular icon is a favorite of my godmother. It is known for its eyes, which are strikingly different. One holds a soft gaze, the other eye is more stern. It seems to balance itself out, and is incredibly moving.
Anyway, I could not turn away from that icon, both eyes speaking to me of His great love and strength. I found myself praying out loud for strength and confessing my weakness. It was as if God Himself met me in my kitchen.
Saturday night at Vespers, my godmother gave me an icon of the Ladder of Heaven, depicting us on our journey to heaven, with demons trying to pull some off the ladder, and other travellers just falling on their own.
It offered me an instant snapshot of how serious this journey is–how vulnerable we are to our own failings and to the attacks of our enemy. But we are to press on, regardless of the perils that surround us.
I needed those two reminders this past week. And I know that I would not have heard them from words spoken to me. I know that I would have ignored them if they had come in any other form.
I need my icons. I really do. I need to be able to look up while doing dishes and see the face of the One who loved me so much that He would be found in fashion as a man, and humble Himself, even unto death on the cross. I need to look at the pictures of my patron saint, Eunice, a teenage martyr who gave up more and suffered more than I would ever be able to do. I need to gaze upon the mournful face of St. John in the icon of the Taking Down of Christ’s Body from the Cross–to remind me of how it is ok to love, to be sad, and to mourn.
One of the services that “got me” was on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, a feast devoted to remembering the triumph of those who argued for Holy Icons. As I stood in the foyer of my little church, I watched smiling children gingerly remove icons from the walls of the sanctuary, carrying them as if they were glass. As the adults, the children carried them outside in a procession led by Fr. Isaac, waving the censor, marching around the building. I felt, as a non-Orthodox, I should not participate, though I think that was mental wimpiness on my part (I probably didn’t know exactly what I thought about it). So I stood in that foyer and watched through the glass doors as they approached from the sidewalk. And as they came in, singing hymns and clutching those icons, I broke down completely, crying as I watched that “great cloud of witnesses” parade before me back into the sanctuary.
Often those who criticize Orthodox worship level charges of idolatry, unable to discern the difference between venerating (showing respect) to the person or truth represented in the icon, and worshipping the Triune God. (Maybe that is because, as Fr. Peter Gilquist says, they merely venerate God, instead of truly worshipping Him.) But I believe that other Christians have eliminated this practice at their own peril, again cutting off another way in which God has provided to communicate His truth.
We were made to understand Truth visually, and concretely. Throughout the Old Testament there are countless examples–the promise in the rainbow after the flood; the serpent on the pole in the wilderness; the rich physical detail included in the temple, the priests robes, and the manner in which His people were to worship Him.
Why much of Christianity has turned its collective back on this I will never know. For me it is a way to connect with God in a way I had often experienced, but never recognized. It is yet another part of my soul that Orthodoxy feeds.