Beauty will save the world, Dostoevsky
Susan Cushman, at the First Things blog, posts an excellent article on icons, here. In a wide-ranging essay, Cushman references Dostoevsky, Kandinsky, St. John of Damascus, Fr. Seraphim Rose, John Climacus, John Chryssagvis,and somewhat surprisingly, Henri Nouwen, among others. Nouwen wrote:
...icons...are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God.
Outside of their Orthodox context, I suspect icons are largely misunderstood. And at least in my part of the country, they are hardly even on the radar screen of our collective consciousness. Many would condemn them as a variation of papist, graven-image idolatry. The less judgmental might appreciate their aesthetic value, as some sort of stilted, quirky religious art, peculiar to the Orthodox. In fact, they are neither.
My religious background was as iconoclastic as could possibly be imagined. We allowed for no images, no stained glass--not even a cross was permitted (though our children's classrooms and literature were chock full of syrupy and saccharine images of Christ and biblical characters--go figure.) Perhaps this stark, clinical rationalism left me starved and hungering for what was missing. I just didn't yet know what it was.
My first exposure to Orthodoxy came on June 6, 2003, when I walked into the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria. I have related this episode before, and I don't want this to turn into yet another self-indulgent convert story. But I actually encountered icons the day before, and that experience is pertinent to the subject at hand.
I was traveling with my friend, Bill (see third previous post). We each had frequent-flyer miles to burn, but were short on cash. Bill and I had to set our sights considerably lower than the Grand Tour. Hence, Bulgaria. We were naturally sympathetic to the country--history has seldom dealt kindly with Bulgaria, whether it be 500 years of Ottoman rule, the disaster of the First World War, followed by the disaster of the Second World War, followed by the disaster of 45 years of communism. Then there was "Good King Boris" who saved the Bulgarian Jews from being shipped to concentration camps (a joint effort, I later learned, with the Orthodox church). Finally, the last tsar, Simeon, had recently returned and won election as Prime Minister of the the country. So, Bulgaria was a bit in the news at the time.
Anyway, we really took to Sofia--just enough faded neo-classical architecture to suit Bill, and just enough down-to-earth grittiness to suit me. The must-see attraction in the city is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a magnificent early 20th-century church in the Russian style. This was the first functioning Orthodox church that I entered. It took a bit of getting used to, once inside. The nave was dark and cavernous, lit only by the flickering of candles. In time, my eyes gradually adjusted to the dim light. As my perception increased, the walls became alive with marvelous frescoes, and I eagerly went from one scene to the next, following the story of Man's redemption.
There were actually quite a few people in the church at the time. The structure was so large, however, that it had a sense of being near empty. I began to observe the worshippers--for it was a revelation to me that that was what they were actually doing. The idea that one could, or would, go to a church and worship outside of a "service" was foreign to my Protestant evangelical sensibilities. I observed one young man in particular. He was thin, probably in his mid 20s, standing very still and erect before a mounted icon of the Virgin Mary. He had already lit a candle and placed it in the stand to the right. He just stood there, perfectly still, seemingly for the longest time. Then I watched him as he crossed himself three times, in slow, sweeping movements, bowing low after each time. He then kissed the icon and moved on to another.
Flannery O'Connor observed that grace is never the "warm fuzzy blanket" we want it to be. More often than not, it comes as a knock upside the head--or worse. Certainly nothing quite so severe in this instance, but something was happening as I watched, my attention rivetted to the young man's actions. The logical, rational, "speak where the Bible speaks, be silent where the Bible is silent," restorationist arguments, that I could have once mustered with confidence against such behavior, fell away into meaninglessness. For in the back of my mind, even then, I realized I had just witnessed something of the nature of true worship and devotion. I didn't yet know what to do with it, but that would come "in God's own time." In becoming Orthodox, I obviously struggled with certain things, but never with the veneration of icons.
Again, from Cushman:
Like the Incarnation, the icon pierces space and time, because a physical object—a piece of wood with gesso and paint and gold leaf—is shot through with God’s eternal presence...."iconography does not ‘decorate’ the church but has an organic, liturgical function in the polyphony of the Eucharistic event, existentially elevating us to the hypostatic realization of life.” This is heavenly stuff for us mortals to wrap our minds around, but we all need to be elevated—to be lifted up in order to see the world as God sees it—as sacred and worthy of redemption.
I encourage you to read her article. Her explanation of the theology of icons--particuarly for the non-Orthodox--is as good as any I have read.