Paul writes, “Now we see only reflections in darkened mirrors, mysteries we do not yet fully understand, but one day we shall see the Lord face to face. Now I can know only in an imperfect way; but then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known. As it is, these three will always remain: faith, hope, and love (charity KJV); and the greatest of these is love (charity).” – I Corinthians 13:12-13
For the soul unfamiliar with Orthodox Christian spirituality, I suppose the matter of “icons” is the most distinguishing aspect of Orthodox worship, yet the least understood by those of us outside this tradition. These mystical paintings appear to us as ancient art forms relics from a distant and bygone age. Yet, icons are still being created o this very day by Christian artists, and the icons carry much the same artistic look as they had centuries ago. The portraits look two dimensional to our eyes that now accustomed to the illusion of three dimensional perspective. The people portrayed have those wide-open eyes that gaze out at the beholder. The people are painted in symbolic yet somehow awkward poses, with mysterious letters, words, and figures placed about them. For the modern eye, “icons” look rather strange – exotically beautiful – yet strange, even rather haunting for some. Yet, here at St. Gregory’s icons are everywhere … and with the Brothers, I witness that they are a vital aspect of their personal devotion. This matter of praying with icons seems so foreign to this old Methodist preacher.
Brother Basil was kind enough to be my teacher as to the use of icons in the worship of Christ. This wise Brother of many years shared that their icons are akin to our stained glass windows – they are artistic re-tellings of the story of our Christian faith. And like our stained glass windows, the icon is also seen as a window. The difference is that in stained glass Church windows, it is the light passing through from the “other side” that brings the story to life, but with icons, it is our “looking through” to the “other side” that brings the story to life. So Brother Basil instructed me, “When you pray to Christ and in Christ’s Spirit using an icon as a help for prayers, pray with open eyes and look contemplatively beyond the icon for the “vision” that Christ’s Spirit seeks to bring to the eyes of your prayerful soul.”
Brother Basil then asked my one of those Socratic questions … “Brother Anthony, when you look at the icon, do you sense that the icon is looking back at you?”
Looking at those wide-open, forward-looking eyes of the icon, I could answer no other way but the truth …”Yes, I do. And because the Christ in the icon is looking at me while I am looking at Him, I find myself somewhat uncomfortable with that experience.” To this, old Brother Basil with his curly, white beard and bright blue eyes returned to me a knowing smile …”Brother Anthony, it is meant to be to some measure uncomfortable. Now when that icon of Jesus looks through “you” ,what do you imagine the icon sees?”
I gave no answer but silence, a silence that drew me into a state of self-examination and reflective confession. After a few moments for my thoughts to settle …the old monk then continued, “This is why we say, ‘As the you gaze into the icon, the icon gazes into you.’ “ I nodded, sensing that I was beginning to understand. He then went on, “This experience reminds us of our yearning to one day look at Christ, face to face … face-to-face …our beholding the spirit of Christ, the character, the love, the peace within that Divine Person; while at the same time, Christ looking deeply into our own soul, beholding what is within us and within our having lived.”