The Gift of Iconography: How Beauty Will Save the World

The Gift of Iconography: How Beauty Will Save the World

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In one of his most famous novels, The Idiot, the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky has the hero of the work, Prince Mishkin, tell the depressed and cynical character Hippolite, “Beauty will save the world.”

Prince Mishkin, who, like Dostoevsky, had epilepsy, is a sort of Christ-figure who represents the values Dostoevsky deemed the highest and most noble: altruism, meekness, kindness, brotherly love, and beauty. Dostoevsky is implying the wider point that God is not only experienced with the mind, in articulated concepts, but can be powerfully encountered and more fully experienced in and through beauty.

Seeing his world start to crumble of its values, Dostoevsky is convinced that if the deep yearning for the good, the true, and the beautiful disappeared, if humanity were deprived of a sense of “the infinitely great and beautiful,” men and women would die of despair. Beauty speaks directly to the human heart alone—the rest of the animal kingdom can never experience it. It is perceived by intuition, it is experienced first and analyzed later. It is speechless, it is spontaneous, it comes upon us unawares—and it possesses us.

A piece of music, a painting in a gallery, a theatrical presentation, a poem or piece of literature, and an ordinary-extraordinary sunset or ocean scene—these gifts stir us, move us, touch us in ways and dimensions that we cannot explain to our satisfaction. It was Dostoevsky’s conviction that these experiences of beauty were the intrusion of the Transcendent, the stirrings of the Holy Spirit of God.

As the Orthodox theologian, Prof. Paul Evdokimov writes, “It is in holiness, in the Holy Spirit, that human people find again the immediate intuition of true Beauty. It is the healing power that flows from Christ, the Great Healer. Christ unites us and the world to Divine Beauty, God Himself.”

On the Sunday of Holy Orthodoxy, with the realization that theological debate and struggling enabled the Church to restore the holy icons to prayer and worship, I want to explore “the other” way of encounter—the icon as an expression of and window into Divine Beauty. The 350 Fathers of the Second Council of Nicea in 787 A.D. were aware that they were not only defining an article of faith for all ages, they were also teaching that in wood, metal, paint, wax, and stone, in the ordinary artifacts of human life, God comes to man, God reveals Himself much in the way He did to Moses in the burning bush.

In and through the holy icons, Divine Beauty takes possession of the human soul if we allow it to happen. Towards the end of his life, the 20th century Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, wrote that “the theologian’s work should be wholly governed by the “logic of wonder.”

“There is,” he said, “a persistent danger that theologians, instead, will end up committed to just the opposite—the wonder of logic.”

Beauty is about the heart and less about the head. Beauty touches us where we are vulnerable and where we feel things intensely, not think things precisely. Beauty can bring tears, give us goose bumps, create an inexplicable interruption in life here and now, to share with us a glimpse into life beyond. Today, we Orthodox Christians lift high the holy icons and proclaim, “Here is such beauty! Here we meet the Creator God who moves all things! Here, in human materials and expression, we stand looking into the very heart of the Divine! What about the icons in my life—do they have true meaning for me?”

The Icons Are Touchpoints of Love

Unlike the religious statues and paintings in the West, the icons have their origin specifically in the defined faith of the Church and ultimately in the eternal love of God. They are meant to be used not simply hung like any other painting. We should go to them in the icon corner of our homes for daily prayer or in moments of crisis and of joy, as individuals and as families. We should enter and leave our homes by reverencing the icons. Why do Orthodox Christians do these things?

Our holy Father St. Maximus the Confessor tells us, “This beauty is ecstatic, it moves out of itself to our hearts through its beauty, goodness, and profusion of God’s intense love for everything.”

Our icons are touchpoints of God’s love for us. We do not worship icons, we look at them in a holy gaze and venerate the one represented in it. Think of it as a window on holiness, on healing, on the love of God ready for our taking. Our icons not only reflect God Himself, they also reflect who we are deep within ourselves. St. Gregory of Sinai writes, “We speak of the ‘angelic life’ as one that through the power of the Holy Spirit and with the help of the Logos, made our flesh—our natural form of clay—a resplendent and fiery image of Divine Beauty.”

Spend time before your icons if you wish to feel the enlivening force (dynamis) of God’s love in your life. It takes time and effort, but your soul and spiritual life will draw sustenance from the experience.

The Icons Are Touchpoints of Truth

Every icon has a truth to convey. In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the British poet John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth is beauty—that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” The beauty of the icon tells a spiritual truth. If the icon depicts a martyr, it speaks of paying the price for discipleship, perhaps the ultimate one. If it is a monk or nun, it speaks to us of reorganizing our lives so as to make daily time for God, for prayer, for silence and stillness.

If it is a lay person Saint, it tells us that the call to discipleship belongs to everyone, to all believers. If the icon is of the Holy Theotokos, it calls us, like she, to surrender, to humility, to recognize that Christ is the most important person in our lives as He was in hers. If it is the Lord depicted, the icon shines into our hearts with the healing, compassion, and merciful presence of Him, who for our sakes, was born, lived, suffered, died and rose again that you and I might live forever!

Icons are a refuge in uncertain, confusing, chaotic times, and they call to us from the walls of our icon corner begging us to take shelter in them. As St. Gregory Palamas taught about the Transfiguration, we can trust about the icon: “that this beauty is Christ who manifested to His disciples ‘what He really was’, the True Light, the beauty of Divine Glory, and the beauty of the Age to Come.”

The Icons Are Touchpoints of New Vision

Gazing is probably the best word to touch the core of Patristic spirituality. Whereas St. Benedict, who has set the tone for the spirituality of the West, calls us first of all to listen, the Eastern fathers summon us to gaze. They call us to take in through our eyes the mystical wonder of Divine Beauty and to be changed by it. By developing the practice of prayer before the icons, we are forming a new vision, a new way of seeing ourselves, others, and our world, a new way of seeing and experiencing God.

St. Theodore the Studite (759-826AD), one of the main theologians who contributed to the resolution of the iconoclastic controversy, emphasized the importance of praying with sacred images.

“Imprint Christ…onto your heart, where he [already] dwells; whether you read a book about him, or behold him in an image, may he inspire your thoughts, as you come to know him twofold through the twofold experience of your senses. Thus you will see with your eyes what you have learned through the words you have heard. He who in this way hears and sees will fill his entire being with the praise of God.”

Too often, Orthodox Christians hang icons throughout their homes and, simply, forget them. They become mere decorations. Some Orthodox homes have no icon corner at all, thus no spiritual center of the home linked inextricably to the Temple where we worship on the Lord’s day. What about your home? Today is a perfect day to renew your homes and your hearts by establishing the holy icons as the center of family life and prayer. May the words of St. Nikolai of Ochrid remind us of why we do this.

“What, my Christian, do you so fervently reverence when the icon you kiss? Christ, the God and Savior I am kissing, the choirs of angels, the saints, and the Mother of God. Mortal am I, and therefore unable them to touch, but when their images I kiss, my heart is a peace.”

I wish all of you to come to that inner peace through your holy icons!

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Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas

Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.