In 1993, on a journey to Moscow, Russia, I encountered iconography in a spectacular way. Icons seemed to be everywhere.
To my 19-year-old eyes, this ubiquitous spiritual art, like everything else in the former (but only just former) Soviet Union seemed mysterious, brooding, ancient, and a little bit frightening. In particular, I found the eyes of the average icon to be creepy. They were a little too real. A little too “alive.” I did not miss being surrounded by icons when I returned to the US.
And then one summer during volunteer week at St. Anthony’s, I was unexpectedly confronted with icons again in the form of The Chiara Room.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about The Chiara Room. While I loved the idea of making icons accessible to St. Anthony’s guests, I was a little too uncomfortable with icons to take advantage of the prayer opportunities afforded by The Chiara Room. On the other hand, I’d learned a bit about icons in the years since my first encounter with them, and I understood those “creepy” eyes a little better. Icons, I had discovered, were intended to serve as both windows and mirrors. As windows, icons show the beholder a glimpse of heaven; as mirrors, icons show the beholder a glimpse of the beholder’s own earthly life in perfect communion with God. In light of this information, it’s not surprising that the eyes of icons had always seemed a little too real and a little too “alive” to me. They were, after all, a gateway to the eternal reality of Divine Love and a reflection of all the Divine that lies within the beholder.
During that Volunteer Week at St. Anthony’s, I decided that I could, for the sake of glimpsing the Divine, tolerate the “creepy” eyes of an icon.
As dusk fell over Marathon and evening’s cool began settling into the house, I stepped into the Chiara Room and popped on the light. So many icons! It was almost like being back in Russia, without the 45-degree weather in August and the frustrating language barrier. I browsed the selection of icons thoughtfully, remembering the icons in the tiny pink chapel across the street from my dorm room in the outer reaches of Moscow and the icons in the four vast churches of Cathedral Square in the center of Moscow. I could almost hear the massive bells of those four churches clanging through the cold, grey air. I could almost feel the trembling of the ground as the bells in Cathedral Square rang together at noon.
In the non-ground-trembling but no less awe-inspiring silence of St. Anthony’s Chiara Room, I was drawn to an icon of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It might have been the red of her dress that drew me to this particular icon, or it might have been the aura of intrigue that clings to Mary Magdalene in legend. Whatever the reason, the icon of Mary Magdalene and Jesus felt right in my hand.
Having chosen – or been chosen by – an icon, I picked up a tip sheet for praying with icons. I was not at all surprised to see that the tip sheet encouraged the beholder to choose a figure in the icon and gaze into its eyes. The tip sheet also encouraged the beholder to pray with the icon in any location of the beholder’s choosing. I chose the chapel loft.
Settled into the still darkness of the loft, I was fairly certain that my efforts to pray with an icon would be derailed by fidgetiness. I am not the kind of person who finds it easy to sit still with nothing to “do” for more than about two seconds (it’s taken me nearly a month to write this reflection in small bursts of inspiration accompanied by even smaller bursts of sitting-still time.)
My time with the icon got off to exactly the kind of restless, fidgety start that I had envisioned. I went back to my room to retrieve my water bottle. I went to the refectory to fill said water bottle. I went back to the loft and played with the lights for a bit – on, off, on, off, on off – eventually settling on “off.” I tried different chairs as well as one of the kneelers, eventually settling in an armchair. I spent a full five minutes thinking about whether or not I should light a candle, eventually deciding against it because I don’t like those little paper matchbooks that come from restaurants.
Having run out of excuses to continue avoiding my prayer time with the icon, I reread the prayer tip sheet in the dim light filtering in from the hallway and took the icon in my hands. To overcome my squeamishness about “creepy” icon eyes, I reminded myself over and over again that the eyes of an icon are the windows of heaven and the mirror of my soul.
The reminder made all the difference in the world. As I gazed at the image of Christ, his eyes seemed no less real and no less alive than the eyes in all the icons that had creeped me out over the years. But this time, I knew how to look at the eyes of the icon. I knew how to see beyond the somber darkness and the strangeness that had colored my experience of almost everything in Mother Russia. Beyond the darkness, the strangeness, and the creepy alive-ness, I saw gentleness and invitation and compassion. Most of all, I saw the love of Christ for Mary Magdalene.
And with a jolt, I saw the love of Christ for His beholder: lowly me. The icon’s strange eyes were no longer creepy, but comforting. In those eyes, I saw a living and eternal Love that exists just for me and because of me. But I also saw a living and eternal Love that exists to walk with me and radiate through me. I saw beauty; I saw perfection; I saw joy. I saw the delight of God in beholding God’s beloved Creation, including—or perhaps especially—lowly me. I saw, quite simply, what the iconographer wanted me to see: a window to heaven’s eternal Love and a reflection of the light my soul can bring to the world when filled with that Love.
Where will you find a window to heaven today? What will you see when you gaze inside?
Where will you find the mirror of your soul in its loving communion with the Divine? What will you see when you gaze inside?
– Lori Randall
The image above is of a Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. Note the icons under the arches of the roofline. Click here for a link to a YouTube recording of a Russian Orthodox liturgical song that pairs nicely with the reflection.