Holy Fools

(In a slightly different form, this essay was published in Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books in 1997, revised 2008; illustrations and endnotes have been removed.)

But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound those who are mighty.
—1 Corinthians 1:27

Few taunts are sharper than those that call into question someone’s sanity — he’s crazy, he’s a fool, he’s an idiot, he’s out of touch, he’s missing a few nuts and bolts, he isn’t playing with a full deck, there are bats in his belfry. Yet there are saints whose way of life and acts of witness to the Gospel fly in the face of what most of us regard as sanity. The Russian Church has a special word for such saints, yurodivi, meaning Holy Fools or Fools for Christ’s sake. These are people in whom Christ wears the disguise of madness.

While there is much variety among them, Holy Fools are in every case ascetic Christians living well outside the borders of conventional social behavior, including in many cases conventional religious behavior. They are people who in most parts of the developed world would be locked away in asylums or simply ignored until the elements silenced them, after which they would be thrown into unmarked graves.

While this type of saint is chiefly associated with eastern Christianity, the western Church also has its Holy Fools. Perhaps Francis of Assisi is chief among them. Think of him stripping off his clothes and standing naked before the bishop in Assisi’s main square, or preaching to birds, or taming a wolf, or — during the Crusades — walking unarmed across the Egyptian desert into the Sultan’s camp. What at a distance may seem like charming scenes, when placed on the rough surface of actual life, become mad moments indeed.

Perhaps there is a sense in which each and every saint, even those who were towering intellectuals, would be regarded as insane by many in the modern world because of their devotion to a way of life that, apart from the Gospel, was completely senseless. Every saint is troubling. Every saint reveals some of our fears and makes us question our fear-driven choices.

The holy fool is not confined to the calendar of saints. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, we find a holy fool in Lizaveta, one of the two women murdered by Raskolnikov. She is simple minded but a pure soul, while her killer is a scholar clever enough to devise a philosophical justification for murder. (The name Dostoevsky assigns to his anti-hero, Raskolnikov, means someone cut off from the whole, a man out of communion.)

“Were you friends with Lizaveta?” Raskolnikov asks the prostitute Sonya. “Yes,” Sonya responds. “She and I used to read and talk. She will see God.”

Dostoevsky continues: “How strange these bookish words sounded to him; and here was another new thing: some sort of mysterious get-togethers with Lizaveta — two holy fools.”

“One might well become a holy fool oneself here,” exclaims Raskolnikov. “It’s catching!”

In Leo Tolstoy’s memoir of his childhood, he recalls Grisha, a holy fool who sometimes wandered about his parent’s estate and even into the mansion itself. “He gave little icons to those he took a fancy to,” Tolstoy remembered. Among the local gentry, some regarded Grisha as a pure soul whose presence was a blessing, while others dismissed him as a lazy peasant. “I will only say one thing,” Tolstoy’s mother said at table one night, opposing her husband’s view that Grisha should be put in prison. “It is hard to believe that a man, though he is sixty, goes barefoot summer and winter and always under his clothes wears chains weighing seventy pounds, and who has more than once declined a comfortable life …. it is hard to believe that such a man does all this merely because he is lazy.”

Grisha, Lizaveta and Sonya represent the rank-and-file of Russia’s yurodivi, and one still finds them in Russia today. Few such men and women will be canonized, but nonetheless they help save those around them. They are reminders of God’s presence.

St Basil the Blessed, Holy Fool of Moscow

The most famous of Russia’s Holy Fools is Saint Basil the Blessed, after whom the colorful cathedral on Red Square takes its name. In an icon housed in that church, Basil is shown clothed only in his beard and a loin cloth. In the background is the Savior Tower and the churches packed within Moscow’s Kremlin walls. Basil’s hands are raised in prayer toward a small image of Jesus revealed in an opening in the sky. The fool has a meek quality, but a single-minded, intelligent face.

It is hard to find the actual man beneath the thicket of tales and legends that grew up around his memory, but according to tradition Basil was clairvoyant from an early age. Thus, while a cobbler’s apprentice, he first laughed and then wept when a certain merchant ordered a pair of boots, for Basil saw that the man would be wearing a coffin before his new boots were ready. We can imagine that the merchant was not amused at the boy’s behavior. Soon after, Basil became a vagrant. Dressing as if for the Garden of Eden, Basil’s survival of many bitter Russian winters must be reckoned among the miracles associated with his life.

A naked man wandering the streets — it isn’t surprising that he became famous in the capital city. Especially for the wealthy, he was not a comfort either to eye or ear. In the eyes of some, he was a trouble-maker. There are tales of him destroying the merchandise of dishonest tradesmen at the market on Red Square. At times he hurled stones at the houses of the wealthy — yet, as if reverencing icons, he sometimes kissed the stones on the outside of houses in which evil had been committed, as if to say that no matter what happens within these walls, there is still hope of conversion.

Basil was one of the few who dared warn Ivan the Terrible that his violent deeds were dooming him to hell.

According to one story, in the midst of Lent, when Orthodox Russians keep a rigorous vegetarian fast, Basil presented the czar with a slab of raw beef, telling him that there was no reason in his case not to eat meat. “Why abstain from meat when you murder men?” Basil asked. Ivan, whose irritated glance was a death sentence to others, is said to have lived in dread of Basil and would allow no harm to be done to him and occasionally even sent gifts to the naked prophet of the streets, but Basil kept none of these for himself. Most that he received he gave to beggars, though in one surprising case a gift of gold from the czar was passed on to a merchant. Others imagined the man was well off, but Basil discerned the man had been ruined and was actually starving, but was too proud to beg.

Once Basil poured vodka on the street, another royal gift; he wanted, he said, to put out the fires of sin.

Basil was so revered by Muscovites that, when he died, his thin body was buried, not in a pauper’s grave on the city’s edge, but next to the newly erected Cathedral of the Protection of the Mother of God. The people began to call the church Saint Basil’s, for to go there meant to pray at Basil’s grave. Not many years passed before Basil was formally canonized by the Russian Church. A chapel built over his grave became an integral part of the great building, adding a ninth dome to the eight already there.

Another Fool for Christ was the heir to Ivan the Terrible’s imperial throne, Czar Theodore. Regarded by western diplomats of the time as a weakling and idiot, Theodore was adored by the Russian people. Brought up in an environment of brutality, reviled by his father, regarded with scorn by courtiers, he became a man of simplicity, prayer, and quiet devotion to his wife. Much of his time was spent in church. It is said that throughout his fourteen years as czar he never lost his playfulness or love of beauty. He sometimes woke the people of Moscow in the hours before dawn by sounding the great bells of the Kremlin, a summons to prayer. “He was small of stature,” according to a contemporary account, “and bore the marks of fasting. He was humble, given to the things of the soul, constant in prayer, liberal in alms. He did not care for the things of this world, only for the salvation of the soul.”

“This simpleton,” writes Nicholas Zernov, “robed in gorgeous vestments, was determined that bloodshed, cruelty and oppression must be stopped, and it was stopped as long as he occupied the throne of his ancestors.”

St Xenia of Petersburg, Holy Fool for Christ

In June 1988, I was present at a Church Council for the canonization at the Holy Trinity-Saint Sergius Lavra north of Moscow of someone very like Basil and Theodore: Saint Xenia of Saint Petersburg.

Early in her long life Xenia had been married to an army colonel who drank himself to death and who may have been an abusive, violent husband. Soon after his funeral, she began giving away the family fortune to the poor, a simple act of obedience to Christ’s teaching: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor . . . and come, follow me.” In order to prevent Xenia from impoverishing herself, relatives sought to have her declared insane. However the doctor who examined her concluded Xenia was the sanest person he had ever met.

Having given away her wealth, for some years Xenia disappeared, becoming one of Russia’s many pilgrims walking from shrine to shrine while reciting the Jesus Prayer. Somewhere along the way during those hidden years, she became a Fool for Christ. When Xenia finally returned to Saint Petersburg, she was wearing the threadbare remnants of her late husband’s military uniform — these are usually shown in the icons of her — and would answer only to his name, not her own. One can only guess her motives. In taking upon herself his name and clothing, she may have been attempting to do penance for his sins. Her home became the Smolensk cemetery on the city’s edge where she slept rough year-round and where finally she was buried.

Xenia became known for her clairvoyant gift of telling people what to expect and what they should do, though what she said often made sense only in the light of later events. She might say to certain persons she singled out, “Go home and make blini [Russian pancakes].” As blini are served after funerals, the person she addressed would understand that a member of the family would soon die.

Xenia never begged. Money was given to her but she kept only an occasional kopek for herself; everything else was passed on to others.

When she died at the end of the 18th century, age 71, her grave became a place of prayer and pilgrimage and remained so even through the Soviet period, though for several decades the political authorities closed the chapel at her grave site. The official canonization of this Fool for Christ and the re-opening of the chapel over her grave were vivid gestures in the Gorbachev years that the war against religion was truly over in Russia.

Why does the Church occasionally canonize people whose lives are not only at odds with civil society but who often hardly fit ecclesiastical society either? The answer must be that Holy Fools dramatize something about God that most Christians find embarrassing but which we vaguely recognize is crucial information.

It is the special vocation of Holy Fools to live out in a rough, literal, breath-taking way the “hard sayings” of Jesus. Like the Son of Man, they have no place to lay their heads, and, again like him, they live without money in their pockets — thus Jesus, in responding to a question about paying taxes, had no coin of his own with which to display Caesar’s image.

While never harming anyone, Holy Fools often raise their voices against those who lie and cheat and do violence to others, but at the same time they are always ready to embrace these same greedy and ruthless people.

They take everyone seriously. No one, absolutely no one, is unimportant. In fact the only thing always important for them, apart from God and angels, are the people around them, whoever they are, no matter how limited they are. Their dramatic gestures, however shocking, always have to do with revealing the person of Christ and his mercy.

For most people, clothing serves as a message of how high they have risen and how secure — or insecure — they are. Holy Fools wear the wrong clothes, or rags, or even nothing at all. This is a witness that they have nothing to lose. There is nothing to cling to and nothing for anyone to steal.

The Fool for Christ, says Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, “has no possessions, no family, no position, and so can speak with a prophetic boldness. He cannot be exploited, for he has no ambition; and he fears God alone.”

The rag-dressed (or undressed) Holy Fool is like Issa, the wandering Japanese poet, who enjoyed possessing only what could not be taken away: “The thief left it behind! The moon in the window.” Inevitably, the voluntary destitution and absolute vulnerability of the Holy Fool challenges us with our locks and keys and schemes to outwit destitution, suffering and death.

Holy Fools may be people of ordinary intelligence, or quite brilliant. In the latter case such a follower of Christ may have found his or her path to foolishness as a way of overcoming pride and a need for recognition of intellectual gifts or spiritual attainments. A great scholar of Russian spirituality, George Fedotov, points out that for all who seek mystical heights by following the traditional path of rigorous self-denial, there is always the problem of vainglory, “a great danger for monastic asceticism.” For such people a feigned madness, provoking from many others contempt or vilification, saves them from something worse, being honored. (One thinks of Dorothy Day’s barbed comment: “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”)

Clearly Holy Fools challenge an understanding of Christianity, more typical in western than eastern Christianity, that gives the intellectually gifted people a head start not only in economic efforts but spiritual life. But the Gospel and sacramental life aren’t just for the clever. At the Last Judgment we will not be asked how shrewd we were but how merciful. Our academic achievements won’t save us. (In the western Church, beginning in the late Middle Ages, the idea took hold that sacramental life presupposed the life of reason and the ability to explain one’s faith. Thus in the west children below “the age of reason,” along with the deaf, the mute and mentally retarded, were barred from communion, while in the Orthodox Church, infants and children are at the front of the line to receive communion.)

In their outlandish behavior, Holy Fools pose the question: are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others, prudence, and what those around us regard as “sanity”? The Holy Fools shout out with their mad words and deeds that to seek God is not necessarily the same thing as to seek sanity.

We need to think long and hard about sanity, a word most of us cling to with a steel grip. Does fear of being regarded by others as insane confine me in a cage of “responsible” behavior that limits my freedom and cripples my ability to love? And is it in fact such a wonderful thing to be regarded as sane? After all, the chief administrator of the Holocaust, Adolph Eichmann, was declared “quite sane” by the psychiatrists who examined him before his trial in Jerusalem. Surely the same psychiatrists would have found Saint Basil, Saint Theodore and Saint Xenia all insane — and Saint Francis, and that most revered of all mad men, the Son of Man, the Savior, Jesus of Nazareth.

Henry David Thoreau, by no means the most conventional man of his time, lamented on his death bed, “What demon possessed me that I behaved so well.” He would have taken comfort in Holy Fools. They remind us of a deeper sanity that is sometimes hidden beneath apparent lunacy: the treasure of a God-centered life.

Holy Fools like Saint Xenia are God-obsessed people who throw into the bonfire anything that gets in the way or leads them down blind alleys. But where does their path actually lead them? It is easier to say where they are not headed and what they are not taking with them than to describe where they are going. One can use a phrase like “the kingdom of God” but this reveals no more about what it is to live in the Holy Spirit than a dictionary entry on oranges reveals about the taste of an orange.

But were at least some of the Holy Fools, after all, not crazy? The answer must be: maybe so. While the Fools for Christ who have been canonized are regarded by the Church as having worn madness as a mask, in fact no one knows how much a mask it really was, only that Christ shone through their lives. As Fedotov says, for most Russian people, “the difficulty [confronting many others] does not exist. Sincere [lunacy] or feigned, a madman with religious charisma … is always a saint, perhaps the most beloved saint in Russia.”

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Praying With Icons: St. George the Dragon Slayer

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997, revised 2008; endnotes have been removed

According to legend, a dragon lived in a lake in the region of Cappadocia in Asia Minor. To subdue his rage, the local people sacrificed their children to him. They were chosen by lot. At last it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be sacrificed. She was going toward the lake to meet her doom, when a Christian knight, Saint George, appeared on the scene. After praying to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, George wounded the dragon with his lance. Afterward Elizabeth led the vanquished creature into the city. The monster followed Elizabeth, says the Legenda Aurea of Blessed James de Voragine, “as if it had been a meek beast.” Rejecting a reward of gold, George called on the local people to be baptized.

The legend of the brave knight on a white horse who rescued a princess bears the imprint of the actual practice in many ancient cultures of sacrificing children to blood-thirsty deities. Christian missionaries revealed God as loving and merciful rather than an ominous tyrant who had to be appeased by killing.

This wonderful tale of a saint battling a dragon came centuries after the actual George had died a martyr’s death. The “dragon” George fought against was fear of the emperor. Living in the time of the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian, when many Christians were being arrested and taken away to torturers and executioners, George had the courage to walk into a public square and shout, “All the gentile gods are devils. My God made the heavens and is the true God.” For this he was arrested, tortured, and put to death. His witness is said to have led to the conversion of many and to have given courage to others who were already baptized.

Like Nicholas of Myra, Saint George is a deliverer of prisoners and protector of the poor. Perhaps because his name means “husbandman,” he is also the patron of agriculture, herds, flocks and shepherds.

The icons of Saint George battling the dragon are simple but powerful images of the struggle against fear and evil, symbolized by the dragon. The graceful white horse George rides represents the strength and courage God gives to those who bear witness. The thin cross-topped lance the saint holds is not tightly grasped but rests lightly in his hand — meaning that it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil. George’s face shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. Often the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing.

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Praying With Icons: The Transfiguration Icon

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997, revised 2008; endnotes have been removed

Just as the Lord’s body was glorified when he went up the mountain and was transfigured into the glory of God and into infinite light, so the saints’ bodies also are glorified and shine as lightning.
—Saint Macarius, The Homilies

God became man that we might be made God.
—a saying of Saint Irenaeus, Saint Athanasius, Saint Gregory of Nazianzen, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and other Fathers of the Church

During the several years of his public ministry, little by little Jesus revealed his divinity to his followers. The apostles witnessed not only many miracles but even his ability to calm a storm. Yet only three of his closest followers were permitted to see the glory of his divinity. Jesus brought Peter, James and John to a high place. While praying, the apostles saw Jesus in conversation with the lawgiver Moses and the prophet Elias. Christ’s clothing became “dazzling white” and his face “shone like the sun.”

For the three witnesses, this was the fulfillment of a promise Jesus had made not long before: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Mt 16:28)

For pilgrims in Galilee, Mount Tabor — a steep conical hill that rises to nearly 600 meters — is an essential stop. It is one of the oldest places of Christian worship. In 326, Saint Helena arranged the construction of a church commemorating the Transfiguration. Since then, several churches have stood on the spot, the most recent erected less than a century ago.

From Luke’s Gospel, we know what Jesus, Moses and Elias were discussing as they stood side by side: the events that were soon to occur in Jerusalem. In preparation for Jesus’s impending arrest, torture and execution, the three were given a brief experience of the Christ who would rise from the tomb.

As Moses and Elias were leaving, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three booths, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elias.” Then a radiant cloud overshadowed them. The terrified disciples heard the voice of God the Father saying, “This is my beloved son, my chosen. Listen to him!” In Matthew’s account, after the Transfiguration Christ said to the three, “Rise, and have no fear.”

Later in his life, Peter would declare, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye witnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father… we heard the voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”

Having been a witness to the Transfiguration, it is no wonder that light plays such a vital role in Peter’s testimony about the Lord. The prophetic word, he wrote in the same letter, is like a “shining lamp in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

The Transfiguration icon is a stark realization of the story. We see Christ in white robes on the height of a mountain. Iconographers have used different methods to represent symbolically the uncreated light of divinity or, as Saint John of Damascus expressed it, “the splendor of the divine nature.” The usual iconographic device is a mandorla surrounding Christ’s body with three concentric circles pierced by knife-sharp rays of gold or white. What actually was seen by the three witnesses could never be painted. Any artistic attempt at photographic realism would only mask the event.

“The light which illumined the apostles,” Leonid Ouspensky observed, “was not something sensible, but on the other hand it is equally false to see in it an intelligible reality, which could be called ‘light’ only metaphorically. The divine light is neither material nor spiritual, for it transcends the order of the created…. [It] has no beginning and no end.”

The light that the apostles experienced on Mount Tabor, wrote Saint Gregory Palamas, one of Christianity’s great mystics, “had no beginning and no end. It remained uncircumscribed and imperceptible to the senses although it was contemplated by the apostles’ eyes…. By a transformation of their senses, the Lord’s disciples passed from the flesh to the Spirit.” Elsewhere Saint Gregory notes that: “Whoever participates in the divine energies … in a sense himself becomes light. He is united to the light and with the light, he sees what remains hidden to those who do not have the grace. He goes beyond the physical senses and everything that is known [by the human mind].”

The Transfiguration, like Christ’s Baptism, is a revelation of who Christ is — so much more than a prophet, as the disciples at first had perceived. It was also a revelation of the Holy Trinity. We hear the voice of the Father and see the light of the Holy Spirit and the blinding face of the Son. “Today on Tabor in the manifestation of your light, O Lord,” the Orthodox Church sings on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, “your light unaltered from the light of the unbegotten Father, we have seen the Father as light, and the Spirit as light, guiding with light the whole creation.”

In the icon, Moses, carrying the tablets of the law, stands on the right, Elias on the left. Their presence bears witness that Jesus is the Expected One, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Also they each had previously experienced the divine presence: Moses in a thick cloud on top of Mount Sinai, Elias on Mount Carmel where God spoke to him in a whisper.

In the lower tier of the icon are the prostrate disciples, Peter, James and John. Their locations vary in different versions of the icon as do their physical attitudes, but Peter can be recognized with his short beard and thick, curly hair, and John from his red robe. Often Peter is kneeling, John thrown backward, and James shielding himself.

The icon is not only about something that once happened on top of Mount Tabor or even about the identity of Christ. It also concerns human destiny, our resurrection and eventual participation in the wholeness of Christ. We will be able to see each other as being made in the image and likeness of God. We too will be transfigured.

Through Christ we become one with God. The Greek word is theosis; in English, deification. “God’s incarnation opens the way to man’s deification,” explains Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia. “To be deified is, more specifically, to be ‘christified’: the divine likeness that we are called to attain is the likeness of Christ. We are intended, said Saint Peter, ‘to become sharers in the divine nature’.”

If you have ever listened to Handel’s oratorio, Messiah, you will remember his musical setting of the words of Saint Paul: “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet….And the dead shall be raised incorruptible … and this mortal must put on immortality.”

We can hardly begin to imagine what we will look like to each other, how razor sharp the edges of existence will become, though it occasionally happens in this life that our eyes are briefly opened and we are truly awake, seeing things with an intensity which we tend to describe as blinding — transfigured moments of heightened awareness. Thomas Merton sometimes spoke of these life-defining flashes as “kisses from God.”

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Praying With Icons: Devotion to the Saints

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997; endnotes and illustrations have been removed

To all God’s beloved … called to be saints …
— Saint Paul, letter to the Romans

There is but one sadness, and that is for us not to be saints.
— Leon Bloy, The Femme Pauvre

How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.
— C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

We should try to live in such a way that if the Gospels were lost, they could be re-written by looking at us.
— Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

A saint is a person for whom nothing takes priority over living out God’s will. Some saints gave such a witness to God’s activity in their lives that they have become part of the calendar of the Church, and as a consequence became the subject of icons.

Each saint is unique — they range from geniuses to those known as holy fools, from rulers to flea-bitten pilgrims — and yet each reminds those who encounter them of Christ. Each is a living translation of the Gospel. Such people are marked by self-giving love, courage, freedom and obedience. They are whole, and for this reason we call them holy. The family of words to which holy belongs includes whole, wholesome, healthy and the Old English word for Savior, Hælend. The halos placed around the heads of saints in icons suggest the light of Christ that shines through them. Each saint in a singular way reveals something about who Christ is. In a particular way, each saint draws us closer to Christ.

Most of the saints of the early Church were martyrs, so named from the Greek word for witness. They gave witness by shedding their blood, not that they sought death, but that they would rather die than deny or compromise their faith in Christ. The places they were buried quickly became places where people gathered to pray and where the local church celebrated the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Reverent care for the bodies of those who died for the faith was a hallmark of the Church from its first days. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” wrote Tertullian early in the third century.

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” wrote Saint Paul, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” His words are an invitation not simply to admire saints from a safe distance, but to live a saintly life.

Paul saw the saints as collectively forming “cloud of witnesses” — all those who have given an example of heroic perseverance in the race toward the Kingdom of God.

People without faith regard the saints as dead and gone, but the Church regards them as very much with us. They are not simply remembered as having once set a good example, but embraced as our companions in day-to-day life. One of the earliest definitions of the Church is that it is the Communion of Saints. They are near to us, nearer than we imagine.

A substantial encyclopedia could be devoted simply to icons of the saints — they number in the thousands. In this small volume there is room only for a sampling of the many saints whose images are often found in churches and homes.

In addition to saints, there are those mysterious but important bodiless creatures we call angels. Icons of the archangels have an important place in iconography. While we know relatively little about them and are only rarely aware of their presence, we are conscious of the crucial role played by the angels who devote themselves to God’s service; and we are also aware of the danger posed by those angels who, following Lucifer, reject obedience, wage war with God, and hold human beings in contempt as creatures made in God’s image.

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Praying With Icons: Praying in Body and Soul

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997, revised 2008; endnotes and illustrations have been removed

We bless you now, O my Christ, word of God, light of light without beginning, bestower of the Spirit. We bless you, threefold light of undivided glory. You have vanquished the darkness and brought forth the light, to create everything in it.
—Saint Gregory Nazianzen

Pray simply. Do not expect to find in your heart any remarkable gift of prayer. Consider yourself unworthy of it. Then you will find peace. Use the empty, dry coldness of your prayer as food for your humility.
—Saint Makari of Optino

Prayer does not change God, but changes the person who prays.
— Søren Kierkegaard

“With my body I thee worship,” husband and wife declare to each other in the wedding service provided by the Book of Common Prayer. These words are relevant not only to marital love but to the spiritual life.

Unlike angels, entirely spiritual beings, God has made each of us both body and soul. To be whole, we must worship God both in body and soul.

Nothing is more central to Christianity than its affirmation of the sacramental significance of material reality. One of the most important roles played by icons in Christian history has been to proclaim the physical reality of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. He had, and has, a face. He had, and has, a body. In icons of Mary holding her son, we always see his bare feet, a reminder that he walked on the earth. He was born, lived, died and rose from the dead, broke bread with disciples in Emmaus, invited Thomas to feel the wound in his side, ate fish with his friends in Galilee.

Most of the miracles recorded in the Gospels were physical healings.

So important is the human body that most of the questions to be asked of us at the Last Judgment have to do with our merciful response to the physical needs of others: “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you gave me shelter, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” It is through protective care for creation, especially care for each other, that we most clearly manifest our love of God.

One of the odd things that has happened to prayer in much of western Christianity — in some churches with the Reformation, in others more recently — has been the drastic erosion of the physical dimension of spiritual life. Prayer has become mainly an activity of the head. Many of us have become like birds trying to fly with one wing. Icons can help us grow back the missing wing, the physical aspect of prayer.

Do you pray with your eyes closed? Because icons are physical objects, they serve as invitations to pray with open eyes. While prayer may often be, in Thomas Merton’s words, “like a face-to-face meeting with God in the dark,” cutting a major link with the physical world by closing your eyes is not a precondition of prayer.

If I am to pray with open eyes, it doesn’t have to be icons that I am looking at, but icons are a good and helpful choice. They serve as bridges to Christ, as links with the saints, as reminders of pivotal events in the history of salvation.

Finding an icon can seem daunting, if you don’t know where to look, but chances are icons are near at hand. Is there an Orthodox church near by? Just about any Orthodox parish is likely to have mounted icon prints for sale. Here too you will find help in contacting an iconographer in the event you want to buy or commission a hand-painted icon. Many Christian books shops will have icon prints on sale, often already mounted on wood. In case you find no source locally, a selection of addresses and web sites for ordering icon prints is at the back of this book.

Once you begin praying with icons, you may find icons have a way of seeking you out. Maria Hamilton, one of the people who read this book when it was in manuscript, wrote to me, “When an icon wants to be in your icon corner, it just comes to you. There is nothing you can do about it. I was given a small icon when I was chrismated. Then people just started bringing them to me. I started giving one or two away now and then, and every time I gave one away, two more came in its place. It is possible, with effort, to control the multiplication of books and recordings, but not icons. I never buy icons, because they just come to live here.”

Once you have an icon, it requires a place. Now is the moment to create an icon corner in the place you live: an area where one or several icons are placed that will serve as a regular center of prayer. In our small house no actual corner lends itself to this purpose. For us the fireplace mantel in the living room has become the usual place where my wife and I pray at the start of the day and before we go to sleep at night, though occasionally we use a smaller icon corner in our bedroom.

If you have only one icon, it should be either an icon of the Savior or Mary holding Christ in her arms. If a hand-painted icon is unavailable, get a print of a classic, well-known icon. It should be one that appeals to you, the main test being: Does it help you to pray? In time get an icon of your patron saint and an icon of a local or national saint. Little by little add other icons that seem to call out to you or find their way into your life as gifts. Gradually you will find the icons that you need to find — or they will find you.

Keep in mind that an icon is a prototype of the person represented. The icon exists only to help connect you.

Icons can be in other areas of your home. If there is an icon near the table where meals are served, it’s a good practice to begin and end your meals by standing and facing the icon while reciting a prayer. It is good to have an icon in every bedroom and the kitchen.

Depending on your place or places of work, an icon can be near you throughout the day — on your desk, over the sink, on the dashboard of the car or truck.

When traveling, carry a small icon or an icon card (possibly laminated) in your pocket or purse.

During times of prayer, if not for longer periods, a vigil lamp or candle should be lit in your icon corner. A flame is a metaphor for prayer. Its warm flame both encourages prayer and provides the ideal illumination. Icons are not intended for bright illumination.

Begin and end your prayers with an invocation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, at the same time crossing yourself. With this simple gesture, we reconnect ourselves with the community of love that exists within God. The invocation of the Holy Trinity combines a physical action with our words of prayer. In word and act, we remind ourselves we are in the presence of God. There is no need to come from a church tradition in which making the sign of the cross is usual. It was a gesture belonging to the whole Church before the great divisions; its recovery will help bring us closer once again. During times of worship the same gesture can be used whenever the Holy Trinity is invoked and also at the beginning of certain prayers, like the Our Father, or in connection with the word “amen” (Hebrew for “truly”).

The ideal posture for prayer, especially prayers of praise, worship and thanksgiving, is standing, a physical attitude that also binds us to the Resurrection. Standing also helps keep you in an alert condition, though if you’re used to sitting or kneeling, standing for long periods may take some getting used to. If you have a physical problem that makes standing difficult, use whatever works best, the goal being to be wide awake.

From time to time you might try praying with your hands extended and palms upward, a gesture both of openness to God’s grace and the gift of your hands to God.

There are times in prayer when kneeling is appropriate, especially in prayers of sorrow and repentance, or at times in prayers of intercession. There are also times to press your forehead against the floor and to lie prostrate. The prayer itself will often awaken such physical actions.

There are no rules governing postures of prayer. Experiment and be flexible.

Even though you may feel under the pressure of the day and its demands, try not to pray in a hurry. Far better to pray for a short time with quiet attention to each word and each breath than to recite many prayers in a rush.

Be aware of your breathing. Breathing in, be aware that you are breathing in life itself, breathing in the air God gave us, breathing in God’s peace. Breathing out, be aware you are breathing out praise and gratitude, breathing out your appeals for help.

If in the midst of prayer a phrase catches your attention, don’t rush on with the rest of the prayer but stop to pray these few words again and again.

Cultivate an attitude of listening.

“In prayer,” noted Saint Theophan the Recluse, a nineteenth-century Russian bishop who was spiritual father to many people and one of the great teachers of prayer, “the principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.”

This is the practice of the presence of God — nurturing a moment-to-moment consciousness of God’s closeness. Note Saint Theophan’s stress on the heart: “Stand before God with the mind in the heart.” Prayer is love-centered. It is not so much belief in God that matters, but love of God, and similarly love of others, including love of enemies.

For those of us who have spent a good deal of our lives in classrooms, it can be difficult to get beyond the world of ideas and theories, but God is not an idea and praying is not an exercise to improve our concept of God. Prayer is the cultivation of the awareness of God’s actual presence. Consider these words of Thomas Merton to his fellow monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani just a few years before his death:

Life is this simple: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God manifests Himself everywhere, in everything, in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that He is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. You cannot be without God. It’s impossible. It’s simply impossible.

There are several kinds of prayer.

One way is the use of traditional prayers which gradually you come to know by heart. You probably already have one or more books with services of morning and evening prayer; in the back of this book there is a selection of prayers from the Orthodox tradition. Standing in your icon corner or wherever you happen to be praying, use these services or parts of them as time allows.

Don’t be distressed that you are using borrowed words and phrases. They gradually become your own. When you say them attentively, they become vehicles for things you might never find words for. Reciting words becomes in the end a way of silence and listening. The words have been given to us by the Church, and their repetition helps push away distractions and brings us into a state of deeper awareness of God. Because the words are usually centuries old, they nurture an awareness that we are praying with those who came before us and also with generations yet to be born.

There are small prayers that can be said again and again. The Jesus Prayer is the most important of these:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

It can also be said in even shorter variations: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me,” or just, “Jesus, mercy.” Sometimes, when thinking about events such as war or catastrophe, it isn’t enough to pray only for yourself. Then the prayer may become, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.”

The Jesus Prayer, also known as the Prayer of the Heart, helps draw one more and more deeply into the mercy of Christ. It can become so much a part of life that you find yourself praying while walking, waiting in line or while stuck in a traffic jam, struggling with anger or depression, or lying awake in bed unable to sleep. The prayer can be linked to your breathing.

Some who use the Jesus Prayer are troubled by the word “sinner.” Understood through its Hebrew roots, sin simply means losing your way or wandering off the path — making choices which result in alienation from God and from our neighbor. To the extent we reflect on our choices and actions in the light of the Gospel, we become aware how often pride, fear, envy, impatience and other disconnecting attitudes rule our lives.

There are also short prayers to Mary. Roman Catholics using the rosary will know the Hail Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

Another form of prayer is more spontaneous, though it also may make use of memorized prayers. It’s the prayer of pouring out your heart to God partly in your own words, partly in fragments of prayers you know by heart, as you saw Gorky’s grandmother doing in the introduction to this book. Try to let the main part of such spontaneous prayer center on praise and thanksgiving, but if you are worried or frightened, angry or in urgent need, express it freely and ask for God’s help. Your words can either be spoken aloud or said silently. Don’t worry that what you say may come with difficulty, awkwardness and with periods of silence.

Pray for others. Do it every day. Keep a list of people in need of prayer. Be sure to include not only those you love but anyone you regard as an adversary or enemy. Prayer is where love of enemies begins. If the list of names it gets to be too long for one day, spread it over several days.

Keep a prayer list not only for the living but for the dead. Here is an Orthodox prayer you may find useful:

O God of spirits and of all flesh, who has trampled down death, overthrown the devil and given life to the world, give rest to the souls of your departed servants [mention their names]. Pardon every transgression which they have committed, voluntary or involuntary, whether by word, deed or thought. Establish them where the just repose: a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of rest, where all sickness, sighing and sorrow have fled away.

Among varieties of prayer, there is the prayer of simply standing in silence, waiting before the Lord. Such prayer can come at times of joy or grief or exhaustion, when words seem dead or useless or you feel as dry and empty as a desert. Icons can easily draw you into a silence that becomes much more profound than an awareness of the usually unnoticed surrounding sounds.

It is prayer just to look attentively at an icon and let God speak to you out of the divine silence. Though some icons are better than others and reveal more, almost any icon has something to offer.

Reading the Bible, reading the Fathers of the Church, reading texts from the saints and lives of the saints — this too is a form of prayer.

Be strict with yourself in setting aside time for prayer. At the beginning it can be difficult. For many, prayer in the morning is hardest. Everyone is in a rush — to get to work, to get children up and ready and out the door to school — so that stopping for even a few minutes of prayers seems impossible. But what if you were to get up just fifteen minutes earlier? Even ten? Imagine what a difference it makes to begin a day with prayer.

Similarly, make it your rule not go to bed without having prayed. Again, in the beginning it can be a hard struggle to overcome all the habits that exclude prayer, one of which may be the fear that one or another member of the family regards your efforts to pray as laughable. This is an age in which many people are kept from going far in their spiritual lives simply because they are embarrassed to be seen as religious. I often recall Catholic Worker foundress Dorothy Day’s remark: “If I have accomplished anything in my life it was because I wasn’t afraid to talk about God.” She was not embarrassed to be seen at prayer.

If you wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep, you can pray in bed, or you can get up and go to your icon corner to pray. Read the psalms. Get out your list of people you are worried about and take time to pray for them. Sometimes it is in the small hours of the night that spontaneous prayer comes most easily.

While prayer is most often a solitary activity scattered throughout the day, look for opportunities to pray with others. My wife and I stand side by side before our icons before going to bed. Occasionally we are joined by guests. In the beginning our effort required reading together parts of the service of evening prayer used in the Orthodox Church, but gradually the prayers are learned by heart and no book is needed. We end our prayers with intercession, using several lists we keep. We have come to recognize this part of the day as one of the essential activities of our married life, binding us more and more closely together.

Be aware of the impact of food on your spiritual life. Following the traditional practice of the Church from the early centuries, there are several seasons of fasting that precede the great feasts plus two days each week for fasting during the rest of the year: Wednesday and Friday. In Orthodox practice, for those in good health fasting normally involves abstaining from meat, dairy products, anything alcoholic and desserts.

For those not used to going without these things, even very limited fasting seems daunting at first. You may want to start out by simply fasting from meat and alcohol. Little by little, as you get used to it, you will notice the difference fasting makes in your prayer life. Finally you get to the point where you welcome fast days and look forward to seasons of fasting. Greek and Russian cookbooks often have helpful sections on food for Lent. (Note that, when being a guest, gratefully accepting what is offered takes priority over maintaining a fast.)

Fasting seasons are linked with increased time for prayer and expanded alms giving. A fast without increased charity is no fast at all. Look for opportunities to give money, time, and increased attention to others.

If you haven’t got one already, get a church calendar so that you can follow not only the major seasons but the religious meaning of each day and the associated biblical readings. The liturgical year is a continuing procession of icons through which we keep returning to the main events of salvation history. The purpose of the church year, wrote Father Lev Gillet, is not only to bring to the mind of believers the teachings of the Gospel and the main events of Christian history in a certain order, or to orient our prayer in a certain direction, but “to renew and in some sense actualize the event of which it is a symbol, taking the event out of the past and making it immediate.” By paying attention to the calendar, we begin to see each day not simply as having a secular identity, but as a door toward closer union with Christ.

The church calendar also provides a guide to readings from the Bible for each day of the year. This means carving out another a small island of time. Read the day’s texts not with scholarly detachment, but with a real thirst to hear God’s voice.

One prayer that you might use at the beginning of each day comes from the Monastery of Optina, an important center of spiritual life in Russia in the nineteenth century:

Lord, grant that I may meet the coming day with spiritual tranquility. Grant that in all things I may rely upon your holy will. In each hour of the day, reveal your will to me. Whatever news may reach me this day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul, knowing that all is subject to your holy will. Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down by you. Grant that I may deal firmly and wisely with every member of my family and all who are in my care, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone. Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.

The phrase “all is sent down by you” doesn’t mean that God wills any evil events that may happen on a given day, only that we always need to be open to God’s presence, grace and mercy, no matter what happens.

Prayer life is an essential aspect of outgrowing selfishness. There is no going to heaven alone. One of the great monks of the desert, Saint Dorotheos of Gaza, taught that “whoever comes closer his neighbor comes closer to God, while whoever is distant from his neighbor is distant from God.” Prayer is never an escape from others, but rather equips us for greater intimacy, deeper caring, a growing capacity for self-giving love.

Through prayer we become more capable of seeing those whom we encounter in day-to-day life as living icons, even if the God-given image they bear has been damaged by the events of life, unfortunate choices and destructive habits. A priest once advised a friend of mine who wanted to enlarge her icon collection: “Don’t go out and buy icons. Go downtown and look at Christ in the faces of the poor.”

It’s for this reason, during the Orthodox Liturgy, that not only are all icons in church censed by the deacon or priest, but so is each and every person standing in the church.

If we are indifferent to the image of God in people, neither will we find God’s image in icons. One thinks of the advice given to medieval pilgrims: “If you do not travel with Him whom you seek, you will not find Him when you reach your destination.”

There is also this teaching from John Chrysostom, one of the great saints of the fourth century:

Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold. He who said, “This is my body,” and made it so by his word, is the same who said, “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.” Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.

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Praying With Icons: Qualities of the Icon

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997, revised 2008; endnotes and illustrations have been removed

It is the task of the iconographer to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are, if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshiping as “fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ.”
— Thomas Merton

There are no words nor colors nor lines which could represent the Kingdom of God as we represent and describe our world. Both theology and iconography are faced with a problem which is absolutely insoluble — to express by means belonging to the created world that which is infinitely above the creature. On this plane there are no successes, for the subject itself is beyond comprehension and no matter how lofty in content and beautiful an icon may be, it cannot be perfect, just as no word or image can be perfect. In this sense both theology and iconography are always failures. Precisely in this failure lies the value of both alike; for this value results from the fact that both theology and iconography reach the limit of human possibilities and prove insufficient. Therefore the methods used by iconography for pointing to the Kingdom of God can only be figurative, symbolical, like the language of the parables in the Holy Scriptures.
— Leonid Ouspensky

A good icon is a work of beauty and beauty itself bears witness to God. But who can define beauty in words? How can someone new to icons distinguish the pure beauty of good iconography and that which is second-rate or simply bad?

Perhaps for those beginning to form a deeper appreciation of icons, some general comments about the essential qualities of an icon may be helpful.

An icon is an instrument for the transmission of Christian faith, no less than the written word. Through sacred imagery, the Holy Spirit speaks to us, revealing truths beyond the reach of words.

Icons are an aid to worship. Wherever an icon is set, that place more easily becomes an area of prayer. The icon is not an end in itself but assists us in going beyond what can be seen with our physical eyes into the realm of mystical experience. “The icon,” comments Paul Evdokimov, “is the last arrow of human eros shot at the heart of the mystery.”

The icon is a work of tradition. Just as the hands of many thousands of bakers stand invisibly behind each loaf of homemade bread, the icon is more than the personal meditation of an individual artist, but the fruit of many generations of believers uniting us to the witnesses of the resurrection.

The icon is silent. No mouths are open nor are there any other physical details which imply sound. But an icon’s silence is not empty. The stillness and silence of the icon, in the home no less than church, create an area that constantly invites prayer. The deep and living silence which marks a good icon is nothing less than the silence of Christ. It is the very opposite of the icy stillness of the tomb. It is the silence of Mary’s contemplative heart, the silence of the transfiguration, the silence of the resurrection, the silence of the Incarnate Word. A disciple of Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, made the comment: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.” Saint Ignatius was martyred in Rome in the year 107.

The icon is concerned solely with the sacred. Through line and color, the iconographer seeks to convey the awesomeness of the invisible and divine reality and to lead the viewer to a deeper awareness of the divine presence.

The icon is a work of theology written in line, images and color. Part of the Church’s response to heresy has been articulated through iconography. For example, the bare feet of the child Jesus shown in many icons serve as a reminder that he walked the earth and left his imprint — that he was not simply a spirit who gave the appearance of being human.

The icon is not intended to force an emotional response. There is a conscious avoidance of movement or theatrical gesture. In portraying moments of biblical history, the faces of participants in the scene are rarely expressive of their feelings at the time as we might imagine them, but rather suggest virtues — purity, patience in suffering, forgiveness, compassion and love. For example, in crucifixion icons, emphasis is not placed on the physical pain Christ endured on the cross. The icon reveals what led him to the cross: the free act of giving his life for others.

Icons guard against over-familiarity with the divine. An icon of the Savior is not merely a sentimental painting of “our dear friend Jesus,” but portrays both his divinity as well as his humanity, his absolute demands on us as well as his infinite mercy.

Icons rely on a minimum of detail. There is either nothing at all in the background or, if a setting is required, it is rendered in the simplest, most austere manner.

Icons have no single light source. Iconographers have developed a way of painting which suggests a light source that is within rather than outside. The technique builds light on darkness rather than the other way round. The intention is to suggest the “uncreated light”: the light of the kingdom of God. The icon’s light is meant to illumine whoever stands in prayer before the icon.

Icons avoid artistic techniques intended to create an illusion of three-dimensional space, suggesting space without attempting to escape the plane of the panel. Even slight violations of this plane always damage the icon’s meaning, much as a spoken word violates pantomime. Because of the inverse perspective of the icon, the image has no vanishing point. Objects — books, tables, chairs — expand where, according to the rules of perspective, they should contract. Lines move toward rather than away from the person at prayer before the icon.

Icons are on the border of abstract art. Because nothing in our world can do better than hint at the beauty of the kingdom of God, natural objects are rendered in a vivid but symbolic, at times abstract, manner. There is, as was noted by Leonid Ouspensky, “a minimum of detail and a maximum of expressiveness.” “Spiritual reality cannot be represented in any other way except through symbols,” Ouspensky observed. “To indicate that baptism is the entry into new life, the baptized, even a fully grown man, is represented as a small child.”

Each icon reveals a person who is named. An icon of the Savior or any saint is not complete without the inscription of his or her name, except in cases where there are numerous figures on icon. Names connote a person no less than visual representation. The icon reveals, notes Nicholas Constas, “not a world of things but a world of persons.”

Icons reveal a person in God’s kingdom. There are no depictions of the sufferings a particular saint had to endure: Sebastian shot full of arrows, Lawrence with the grill on which he was roasted, Anthony suffering temptations, etc. A common feature of western religious paintings is thus absent.

Icons are not captive of a single moment in time. For example in the icon of Christ’s nativity, we may see in the surrounding space events that happened both before and after the birth: the journey of the wise men and midwives washing the newborn child.

In icons faces are seen frontally or in a three-quarters view, the only exceptions being those, like Judas, who have abandoned the kingdom of God. Gazing at the face, we are drawn especially into the eyes, the windows of the soul. The enlightened eyes communicate wisdom, insight, and heightened perception. Meeting the Savior and the saints face-to-face, we find ourselves in a relationship of communion, while a face depicted in profile suggests disconnection and fragmentation.

Despite similarities, each icon is unique. Iconography is not merely the slavish copying of work done by others. “Tradition never shackles the creative powers of the iconographer,” Ouspensky writes, “whose individuality expresses itself in the composition as well as in the color and line. But the personal here is much more subtle than in the other arts and so often escapes superficial observation…. Although icons are sometimes remarkably alike, we never find two absolutely identical icons, except in cases of deliberate copying in more modern times.”

The icon is unsigned. It is not a work of self-advertisement. The iconographer avoids stylistic innovations intended to take the place of a signature. This does not preclude the names of certain iconographers being known to us, but we can say that the greater the iconographer, the less he or she seeks personal recognition.

The icon is not an editorial or a manifesto. The icon painter does not use iconography to promote an ideology or personal opinion. Neither do iconographers decide who ought to be regarded as a saint. The iconographer, having been blessed by the Church to carry on this form of non-verbal theological activity, willingly and humbly works under guidance of Church canons, tradition, and councils.

The icon is an act of witness. As Thomas Merton explained to a correspondent belonging to a church which avoided religious imagery of any kind: “What one ‘sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have ‘seen,’ from the apostles on down…. So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.”

The icon is a revelation of transfiguration. Like the Gospel texts, icons aim to transform the viewer. We were made in the image and likeness of God, but the image has been damaged and the likeness all but lost. Since Adam and Eve, only in Jesus Christ were these attributes fully intact. The icon shows the recovery of wholeness. Over centuries of development, iconographers gradually developed a way of communicating physical reality illuminated by the hidden spiritual life. The icon suggests the transfiguration that occurs to whoever, as the Orthodox say, has “acquired the Holy Spirit.” The icon is thus a witness to theosis: deification. As Saint Athanasius of Alexandria said: “God became human so that the human being could become God.”

A final caveat: Important though artistic skill may be, it is the faith of the praying person that matters most, not the quality of the icon. This is a lesson I learned from Dorothy Day, founder the Catholic Worker movement. It is not that Dorothy was lacking in appreciation for finely painted icons. She greatly admired those belonging to her Russian friend Helene Iswolsky and treasured a book of reproductions of the iconography of Saint Andrei Rublev and other masters. Yet she had an eye for qualities an icon specialist might easily overlook.

Having reached her early sixties, Dorothy was having increasing trouble climbing the five flights to her apartment on Spring Street in lower Manhattan’s Little Italy. A small apartment in a similar tenement on Ridge Street was rented for her. It was only one flight up, but was in appalling condition. A friend and I were went down to clean and paint the two rooms. We dragged box after box of debris down to the street, including what seemed to us a hideous painting of the Holy Family — Mary, Joseph and Jesus rendered in a few bright colors against a grey background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads, deposited it in the trash along the curb, and went back to our labor. Not long after Dorothy arrived, the painting in hand. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s bricked-up fireplace. Looking at it again, this time I saw it was a work of love. While this primitive icon was no masterpiece, the ardent faith of its maker shined through. But I wouldn’t have seen it if Dorothy hadn’t seen it first.

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Praying With Icons: A Short History of Icons

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997; revised 2008; endnotes and illustrations have been removed:

He is the image [Greek: ikon] of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
— Col 1:15

That … which we have heard and seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands … we proclaim also to you.
— 1 John 1:1-3

Christianity is the revelation not only of the Word of God but also the Image of God.
— Leonid Ouspensky

We are the only creatures that make visual records of the things that matter to us. When we meet friends or relatives after a time apart, we not only tell what has happened since our last meeting, we also share photos. At home, similar photos are on display in photo albums and on computer screens.

It’s a trait that seems to reach very nearly to Adam and Eve. The prehistoric paintings found in the Chauvet Cave in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, France, made about 28,000 BC, are among the witnesses to this dimension of being human.

It is not surprising that those who saw Christ took pains to recall what he looked like.

“I have seen a great many portraits of the Savior, and of Peter and Paul, which have been preserved up to our time,” Eusebius recorded in his History of the Church early in the fourth century. While visiting Caesarea Philippi in Galilee, he also noted seeing a centuries-old bronze statue of the Savior outside the house of the woman who had been cured of incessant bleeding by Christ. Eusebius’s witness is all the more compelling as he was one of those who regarded religious images as belonging more to the pagan world than to the Church.

The first icon, according to ancient accounts, was made when King Abgar of Osroene, dying of leprosy, sent a message begging Jesus to visit him in Edessa, a city in what is now Turkey, and cure him. Hurrying toward Jerusalem and his crucifixion, Christ instead sent King Abgar a healing gift. He pressed his face against a linen cloth, making the square of fabric bear the image of his face. The miraculous icon remained in Edessa until the tenth century, when it was brought to Constantinople. Then, after the city was sacked by the Crusaders in 1204, it disappeared. We know it only through copies. Known as “Not Made by Human Hands” or the “Holy Face,” versions of the icon have often been reproduced down to our own day.

In the western Church, a similar story is associated with the name of Veronica, one of the women who comforted Jesus as he was bearing the cross. She offered him a cloth to wipe the blood and sweat from his face and afterward found she had received a miraculous image. In Jerusalem, a building along the Via Dolorosa associated with Veronica is today home to a community of the Little Sisters of Jesus who, appropriately, support themselves by selling icon prints mounted on olive wood.

The Evangelist and physician Luke is regarded as the first person to paint an icon. Saint Luke is credited with three icons of Mary, in one case using the wood of the table where Christ’s mother and Saint John ate their meals.

The best known is “Our Lady of Tenderness” in which the face of the child Jesus is pressing his face against his mother’s. It was given in 1155 to the recently baptized Church in Russia by Patriarch of Constantinople; because it was kept in the cathedral in Vladimir, it came to came to be known as the Vladimir Mother of God.

Another, the “Hodigitria,” meaning “She Who Shows the Way,” has a more formal arrangement, showing Mary presenting her young son to the viewer.

Finally Luke is credited with painting an icon of Mary in prayer, with outstretched arms, an image sometimes seen in Orthodox churches in the sanctuary above the altar. The placing of the icon near the altar serves as a reminder that Mary became the bridge linking heaven and earth.

Ancient icons often bear layer upon layer of paint, as later iconographers renewed by overpainting work that had become too darkened by candle smoke or too damaged with the passage of time. It is only since the beginning of the twentieth century that icon restorers found safe ways to remove overpainting and reveal the original icon. Perhaps at the foundation level of one or another ancient icon are brush strokes that were made by the hand of Saint Luke. Or perhaps not. Nearly all ancient icons were destroyed during times of persecution in the first three centuries of the Christian era or during the iconoclastic periods in the eighth and ninth centuries, while many others have been lost to fires, earthquakes and vandalism. What can be said with confidence is that icons have come down to us that faithfully bear witness to the work of iconographers of the early generations of the Church.

Even though most early icons have been lost or destroyed, it is surprising how many Christian images from the early Church have survived, most notably in the Roman catacombs and burial houses, but also in many other places, from Asia Minor to Spain. Mainly these are wall paintings — simple and sober images, made with few brush strokes and a narrow range of colors, with such subjects as Christ carrying a lamb, the three young men praising God from within a furnace, the raising of Lazarus, the ark of Noah, the eucharistic meal, and such symbols as fish, lamb and peacock. The catacombs bear witness that, from the Church’s early days, wherever Christians prayed, they sought to create a visual environment that reminded them of the Kingdom of God and helped them to pray.

Many early icons of a more developed style survive in Rome, though they are chiefly mosaics and have a monumental aspect, a type of public Christian art that only became possible in the fourth century, after the age of persecution ended.

In one of Rome’s earliest major churches, Santa Maria Maggiore, there are mosaics from the fifth century, but, as they are high up on the walls, the average visitor will need binoculars to see the detail. One mosaic shows Abraham and Sarah with their three angelic guests — an event Christian theologians came to recognize as an early revelation of the Holy Trinity. The large and vivid mosaic icons above and behind the altar, however, are easy to see and deeply moving; at the center Christ is shown crowning his mother.

Among other Roman churches that contain impressive examples of iconography from the first millennium of Christianity are Saints Cosmas and Damian, Saint John Lateran, Santa Sabina, Santa Costanza, San Clemente, Santa Prassede, Santa Agnese fuori le Mura, Santa Maria in Trastevere, and San Paolo fuori le Mura.

The most significant collection of early icons to survive into our time is at the desert monastery of Saint Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai deep inside the Sinai desert. Here we find icon portraits of Christ and the apostle Peter, both dated by art historians as having been made in the sixth century. Both have an almost photographic realism. The style has much in common with Roman and Egyptian portraiture of classical times. These are probably similar to the images mentioned by Eusebius.

Whether or not any original icons from the apostolic age have survived, one is impressed to see how, generation after generation, devout iconographers have sought to make faithful copies of earlier icons, a process that continues to the present day. Thus images of Christ and the leading apostles are recognizable from century to century despite occasional changes in style. We know, for example, that Peter had thick curly hair while Paul was bald. One of the earliest images to survive, a bronze medallion of Saints Peter and Paul, both seen in profile, was made in the second or third century; it is now part of the collection of the Vatican Museum in Rome.

Most important, the memory of Christ’s face is preserved: a man in early middle age, with brown eyes, a piercing gaze, straight dark brown hair reaching down to his shoulders, a short beard, olive skin, and regular features of the Semitic type.

Just as in our own time there is controversy about icons, so was there dispute in the early Church. Early opponents of icons included Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Minucius Felix and Lactancius. Eusebius was not alone in fearing that the art of the pagan world carried with it the spirit of the pagan world, while others objected on the basis of Old Testament restrictions of imagery. Christianity was, after all, born in a world in which many artists were employed doing religious, political and secular work. Idolatry was a normal part of pagan religious life. Thus we find that in the early centuries, in the many areas of controversy among Christians, there was division on questions of religious art and its place in spiritual life. It is instructive to notice that some of those who were reluctant to accept that Christ was God incarnate were also resistant to icons.

At the heart of all theological disputes, from that time into our own day, is the burning question: Who is Jesus Christ?

Some argued that Jesus was simply a man of such exemplary goodness that he was adopted by God as a son. Going further with this idea, others believed God so overwhelmed Jesus the Galilean that his manhood was gradually absorbed into divinity. Then there were those who argued that Jesus merely appeared to be a person of human flesh, but he was in reality pure spirit. Because the flesh is subject to passions, illness and decay, they argued that God could never become incarnate. Those who held this belief rejected Jesus’s death on the cross — a being of pure spirit is deathless — and thus also rejected the resurrection. A being who couldn’t die had no need of being raised from death.

The orthodox Christian answer — that in the womb of Mary the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became a human being, thus Jesus was both true God and true man — was both too simple and too radical for many people. How could the all-powerful God clothe divinity in that which can suffer pain, death and corruption?

Discussion of this issue and its implications constituted the center point for the Church’s seven Ecumenical Councils held during the first eight centuries of the Christian era. Though we find the Orthodox teaching already expressed in the creed of the first Council, held in Nicea near Constantinople in 325, still it took centuries for the Church to shake off the influence of heresies which, in a variety of ways, denied the Incarnation. In fact, these ancient arguments continue with renewed vigor in our own day.

Each church assembly which affirmed the icon was reaffirming the Incarnation. For example the Quinisext Council in Trullo, in 692, while condemning “deceitful paintings that corrupt the intelligence by exciting shameful pleasures,” recognized the icon as a mirror of grace and truth. “In order to expose to the sight of all what is perfect,” the Council declared, “even with the help of painting, we decide that henceforth Christ our God must be presented in his human form…”

The argument over icons reached its boiling point in the eighth and ninth centuries at the time when Islam was rapidly spreading in areas that had formerly been Christian. In 725 the Emperor Leo III, ignoring the opposition of both Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople and Pope Gregory II in Rome, ordered the removal of icons from the churches and their destruction. Perhaps he hoped his order would help stop the spread of Islam, which firmly opposed images in places of worship. Many iconographers from the Byzantine world fled to Italy, finding protection from the Pope. It was a period in which many who upheld orthodox belief suffered loss of property, imprisonment, beatings, and even mutilation.

Some iconoclasts argued that images of Christ, representing as they did his physical appearance, diminished his divinity by revealing only his humanity. It may be that one beneficial consequence of the iconoclastic movement was that makers of icons searched for better ways to represent in paint the hidden, spiritual reality rather than merely the physical aspects of the person represented.

There had been, of course, many earlier defenders of icons, among them Saint Basil the Great in the fourth century, who taught the basic principle that icons are devotional images serving not as ends in themselves but as bridges. He introduced an important verbal clarification. Icons were not adored — God alone is adored — but rather venerated. Even the veneration offered to an icon is given not to the materials that form or support the image, but rather to its living prototype. To kiss an icon of Christ is to send a kiss to Christ himself.

It was a distinction also made in the fourth century by Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa. As he wrote in City of God:

For this is the worship which is due to the Deity; and to express this worship in a single word, as there does not occur to me any Latin term sufficiently exact, I shall avail myself … of a Greek word. Latreia, whenever it occurs in Scripture, is rendered by the word “service.” But that service which is due to men, and in reference to which the apostle [Paul] writes that servants must be subject to their own masters [Eph. 6:5], is usually designated by another word in Greek [douleia], whereas the service which is paid to God alone by worship is always, or almost always, called latreia…

In the age of iconoclasm, the theologian who best defended the use of icons in Christian life was Saint John of Damascus (676-749), a monk and poet kept safe from the power of the iconoclastic emperor through ironic circumstances — his monastery, Mar Saba, in the desert southeast of Jerusalem, was in an area under Islamic rule, thus out of reach of imperial edicts. Here he wrote his essay “On the Divine Images” in which he reasoned:

If we made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error … but we do not do anything of the kind; we do not err, in fact, if we make the image of God incarnate who appeared on earth in the flesh, who in his ineffable goodness, lived with men and assumed the nature, the volume, the form, and the color of the flesh…

Saint John also responded to the arguments of those who regarded Old Testament prohibitions of religious imagery as also applying to the Church:

Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of him whom you saw. Since he who has neither body nor form nor quantity nor quality, who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of his nature, he, being of divine nature, took on the condition of a slave and reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore, paint on wood and present for contemplation him who desired to become visible.

Saint Theodore the Studite (758-826), another defender of icons in the time of iconoclasm, links Gospel and icon with the senses of hearing and seeing:

Imprint Christ onto your heart, where he already dwells. Whether you read about him the Gospels, or behold him in an icon, may he inspire your thoughts, as you come to know him twofold through the twofold experience of your senses. Thus you will see through 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.

The first iconoclastic period lasted until 780. Seven years later, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the bishops rose in defense of the icon. The Council affirmed that it is not the icon itself which is venerated but the prototype whose image is represented in the icon. Iconoclasm was condemned.

Nonetheless, a second iconoclastic period, less severe than the first, was initiated by Emperor Leo V in 813. Orthodox resistance included an impressive act of civil disobedience — an icon-bearing procession in Constantinople by a thousand monks. With the death of the Emperor Theophilus in 842, imperial objections to icons ended. In 843, Theodora, widow of the former Emperor, convened a Council which reaffirmed the teaching of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and confirmed the place of the icon in Christian life. Henceforth the first Sunday of Great Lent was set aside to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, a custom maintained to the present day in the Orthodox world when the faithful bring at least one of their home icons to the church. A text sung on the Sunday of Orthodoxy declares:

The indefinable Word of the Father made Himself definable, having taken flesh of thee, O Mother of God, and having refashioned the soiled image of man to its former estate, has suffused it with Divine beauty. Confessing salvation, we show it forth in deed and word.

If in Byzantium the encounter with Islam initially had a devastating effect on icons, further north the Tartar invasion and occupation of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was to have a disruptive impact on every aspect of religious life among the Russian people, themselves latecomers to Christianity, their conversion having begun in Kiev at the end of the tenth century.

Very little iconography of the first few centuries of Christian culture in Russia survives. The early center of Christianity, Kiev, was almost entirely destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1240. As a consequence, Russian culture was driven north. But from the late fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries, iconography was to reach heights in Russia that many regard as unparalleled before or since.

The most renowned figure of the period is Saint Andrei Rublev, first noted in 1405 while working in a cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin as a student of the master iconographer Theophanes the Greek. In 1425 Saint Andrei painted the Old Testament Holy Trinity icon, widely regarded as the highest achievement in iconographic art.

Saint Andrei’s other masterpieces include the Savior of Zvenigorod, remarkable for the profound sense of love and mercy communicated in Christ’s face.

For generations Russia was a paradise of iconographic art characterized by simplicity of line, vivid, harmonious colors, grace of gesture, an amazing freshness and transparency. But in the mid-sixteenth century one begins to notice signs of decay. Complexity of design begins to take the place of simplicity, while colors become duller and darker. Russian art historians attribute the change, at least in part, to the influence of prints imported from the west. By the seventeenth century artistic decay was well advanced.

“Decline was the result of a deep spiritual crisis, a secularization of religious consciousness,” writes the iconographer and scholar Leonid Ouspensky, “thanks to which, despite the vigorous opposition of the Church [which ordered the destruction of icons influenced by the artistic methods of the Renaissance], there began the penetration not merely of separate elements but of the very principles of religious art.”

Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) played a major role in speeding the process of the secularization of religious art. He avidly promoted imitation of all things western in every field, including church architecture and iconography, a process carried further by his successors. By the middle of the eighteenth century only a few painted icons in the traditional way, nor was their work welcomed in many local churches. Traditional iconography was replaced by third-rate imitation of second-rate western religious painting — “caricatures of icons,” as Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov, a nineteenth century Russian prelate, remarked.

Peter the Great also abolished the office of Patriarch of Moscow. Afterward the Russian Orthodox Church was treated as a department of government. State control lasted until the abdication of the Czar Nicholas II in 1917 — and then came the Bolshevik Revolution and a period of persecution such as Christianity hadn’t experienced since Nero and Diocletian. Not only were countless icons destroyed, but millions of Orthodox believers perished as well.

It was not only in Russia that iconographers were influenced by western approaches to religious art. Similar influences were at work in other Orthodox countries. As a result, today one finds in many Orthodox churches, no matter in which country, an odd mixture of classic iconography and much that, at best, can be appreciated for its sincerity and, at worst, dismissed as suitable only for the basement.

An important event in the renewal of iconography occurred in Russia in 1904. This was the year that a commission was created to restore Rublev’s Old Testament Holy Trinity icon. As was the case with many other old icons, over time the smoke of candles had been absorbed by the varnish, gradually hiding the image beneath the varnish. As no method then existed for removing the varnish without harming the image, the cure for blackened images was the repainting of icons. Thus a similar image was painted over the older one. Some cases, ancient icons bear several layers of paint. A more permanent solution was to place an oklad over the icon: a relief image in metal — silver or gold — that covered everything but the faces and hands. In 1904, the restoration commission carefully removed the oklad that covered the Holy Trinity icon. Then began the slow and painstaking removal of the layers of overpainting that masked Rublev’s work. It took years, but what their effort finally revealed has ever since amazed those who have been privileged to stand in front of the actual icon. The uncovering of the icon was a momentous event, doing much to inspire the return to classic iconography — and the restoration of a great many other old icons.

Thanks largely to the recovery of many ancient icons, the past century has witnessed a startling re-birth of appreciation of classic iconography. Today one finds good reproductions of iconographic masterpieces, not only in churches but in homes and even in offices. But it is not only a matter of reproductions. Increasingly iconographers are being trained in traditional methods and in the spiritual life that sustains iconography. The result is that good hand-painted icons are more often found not only in churches but in private homes.

return to Praying With Icons index page

Praying With Icons

After eleven printings of its original edition plus numerous translations into other languages, Praying with Icons has no been issued in a revised, all-color edition with fifty more pages and an expanded collection of icons.

Extracts from Praying With Icons:

Enlightening and humane

Normally, a second edition is not worth reviewing since the changes are usually minor. However, in almost every way Orbis Books has improved this articulate, personal yet intelligent introduction to icons and the liturgical life that feeds into and surrounds them. For any book on icons, the quality of the color plates/images is paramount. The earlier edition was disappointing, containing only black and white images, and some hard to read, at that.

From the cover image, a detail of the Vladimirskaya icon of the Mother of God, to numerous other icons of Christ, the feasts of the church year and of the saints, the quality of the color images is simply excellent. The choice of icons reproduced is also remarkable, from masters like Andrei Rubliev and Theophanes the Greek to modern master iconographer Leonid Ouspensky and John Reves.

There are also some very helpful texts of daily prayers, sections situating festal icons in the hymnody and lessons of the feastdays, also a number of photos of icons in procession and home icon corners for prayer.

As with his recent book on pilgrimage, Jim Forest allows his own life and experience to appear, making the entire presentation at once enlightening and humane.

This new expanded edition would be very useful in introducing western Christians to the place of icons in the life and worship of the Eastern Church.

— Fr. Michael Plekon (review for St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly)

With Eyes of Devotion

The history of icons is fraught with dissension and violence. Leonid Ouspensky has commented, “Christianity is the revelation not only of the Word of God but also of the Image of God in which God’s likeness is revealed.” And therein lies the crux of the matter: whether one can depict the likeness of the uncreated one.

Jim Forest’s Praying With Icons is a primer on the background of icons and their position in the Orthodox tradition as aids to, even servants of, those who pray.

In a short introductory history, Forest succinctly tells of the struggle among believers and theologians to express the line between idolatry and the making of images that invite people to he drawn deeper into the mystery of faith. Icons are seen by many in the tradition to affirm the incarnation and to witness devoutly to the person of Jesus Christ, both human and divine. Eventually this perspective prevailed.

Short chapters cover the making of icons, rules and prayers for iconographers, the use of colon and symbols that icons have in common Forest offers remarkable insights into the place of an icon within a sanctuary and within liturgy and into the devotional life of those who pray, with both body and soul.

The book’s text is simple and unadorned in contrast to the richness of the reproductions of the icons themselves In addition photographs scattered throughout the text depict both icons and moments of the Orthodox Church at liturgy Praying With Icons is about beauty and intimacy and is beautiful in its own right, drawing the reader into a contemplative stance and a world that is steeped in devotion, the liturgical year, and the scriptures.

The major portion of Forest’s book looks at specific icons, detailing the theology behind the representation and symbols that speak to those who behold and seek to understand the Mystery more deeply. These sections look at the face of the savior and icons of the great feasts in the life of Jesus as Lord; at Mary, specifically Mary the Mother of God of Tenderness and The Mother of God of the Sign; and archangels and major saints of the Orthodox Church.

Forest’s storytelling and explanation of the icons is fascinating. The background information and theology reflect ancient traditions and are hinted at in the icons themselves. But it is also obvious that these commentaries are the fruit of prayerful reflection and long, loving looking at the images over the years. He shares the basics of a language of praying with one’s eyes, or better, learning to love with one’s eyes, being looked at and looking back at the Holy before us. Each of the icons is examined closely and lovingly and treated as an old friend, a confidante on the journey, a companion in the art of praying.

The unique last section of Forest’s book outlines prayers of the day (morning, evening, and compline), prayers of intercession and a litany of peace. These are indicative of the Orthodox tradition and are often used in an icon corner, a holy place in one’s home. (A list of addresses where icons may be purchased throughout the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands is included.) “Praying With Icons” is a resource and an introduction to an ancient and integral part of Orthodox Christianity.

Describing the Transfiguration icon, which reveals the divine energies and light of God hidden in Jesus Christ, Forest reminds us that this experience in the life of Jesus is also about our destinies — to be deified, “christified,” and to “put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51-53). He says: “We can hardly begin to imagine what we will look like to each other, how razor sharp the edges of existence will become, though it occasionally happens in this life that our eyes are briefly opened and we are truly awake, seeing things with an intensity which we tend to describe as blinding — God-given moments of transfiguration. Thomas Merton used to speak of such defining flashes as “kisses from God.”

Praying With Icons can go far in teaching us to recognize these life-defining flashes in the person of Jesus, the Spirit, the Trinity, Mary and the saints, as well as in our own lives. It teaches us awe before these representations which make us remember that each of us are, at root, icons of the living God or “kisses from God” upon the world.

It is no wonder that the gesture of kissing the icon privately and publicly and bowing before it is intrinsic to the art of praying with icons. This book is a blessing, made extraordinarily graceful by these icons, those who have honored and saved them in history, and by Jim Forest whose love for them is shared so unabashedly.

–Megan McKenna (from her review for Sojourners)

A clear and vivid account

Books about icons abound, both in the Orthodox world and outside it; some are good, some are bad, some are scholarly, some heavily theological, some technical. Here is one that can be warmly welcomed as an excellent, well written, straight-forward presentation of the subject. It is, from one point of view, a very personal account of their first encounter with icons and of their deepening understanding of the place of icons in their life of prayer. It is also an eirenic book, drawing not only on Orthodox writers, but also on western ones, like Fr Thomas Merton.

The book is divided into five parts. The first treats of the background to the main theme, giving brief, but clear accounts of the history of icons and the preparations and techniques, both material and spiritual, for making them. Part Two consists of two short chapters on Prayer, which are full of sound advice. The author perceptively remarks that ‘another obstacle to prayer is preoccupation with time’, and he recalls the story of the Quaker engineer who was working for the Tsar in the 1840s. Some peasants came to visit him and on entering the house naturally looked first for the icons to venerate. They were puzzled to find that there were none. After some hesitation they bowed in veneration to a fine British clock on the mantle piece. Jim Forest comments: ‘In a way the peasants were right. They had identified a machine which has immense power in the lives of “advanced” people.’

The bulk of the book consists of two parts devoted to brief commentaries on the icons of the Lord and of the great feasts and then on those of the Mother of God and the Saints. These are on the whole very well done and are full of perceptive remarks, such as this, on the icon of the Nativity: ‘This is not the Messiah the Jews of those days expected — or the God we Christians of the modern world were expecting either.’ The final part is a short collection of traditional Orthodox prayers.

— Archimandrite Ephrem Lash
review published in Sourozh, journal of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain

Praying With Icons is available from Orbis Books in the US and Alban Books in the UK, from many bookshops and also from such web sites as Amazon.

The book’s Amazon page:

Orbis Books
Maryknoll, NY 10545
fax 914: 945-0670
free phone for book orders: 1-800-258-5838
e-mail: [email protected]


The Ladder of the Beatitudes – Blessed are the poor in spirit

Blessed are they who have nothing to lock up.

— Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

The monks of the Egyptian desert in the fourth century described some who came to visit them as “visitors from Jerusalem,” others as “visitors from Babylon.” It was their way of distinguishing pilgrim from tourist. The tourist is seeking new sights, a glimpse of life in another part of the world, sometimes courting adventure, or perhaps just the experience of an exotic location. The pilgrim is seeking God.

Inside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher (or Church of the Resurrection, as Orthodox Christians call it), my wife once found herself standing on a borderline between tourists and pilgrims while she was waiting in line to enter the tomb in which Christ was buried. Before her was an American couple who had come as part of a tour but whose guide apparently hadn’t made clear why they were being shown a small chapel under a huge dome in an ancient church. “Maybe it’s where he was born,” the wife said. “No,” said her husband, “that was yesterday, in Bethlehem.” “Oh yes. But then what is it?” Her husband didn’t know. Finally it was their turn to go inside. The wife did what she had seen others ahead of her do — kneel by a stone slab inside the narrow enclosure while her husband took a photograph. But in front of what?

Meanwhile behind Nancy were several older Greek women, all in black, each holding a clutch of candles like a bouquet of flowers, none of them saying a word, tears streaming down their faces. They knew exactly where they were. Behind them, on what was then a small hill just outside the city walls, Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, had been crucified, while in front of them was the actual place where his dead body had been put in a sealed tomb and left under Roman guard, the place where he rose from the dead. They were inching their way toward the Resurrection, history’s central event, the axis on which the church’s calendar turns and with it their own lives.

In the Age of Tourism, how do we become pilgrims?

The answer is the day-by-day practice of poverty of spirit, the first rung of the ladder of the beatitudes. Poverty of spirit is the essential beginning, the context of discipleship. Without it we cannot begin to follow Christ.

What does poverty of spirit mean? It is my awareness that I cannot save myself, that I am basically defenseless, that neither money nor power will spare me from suffering and death, and that no matter what I achieve and acquire in this life, it will be far less than I wanted. Poverty of spirit is my awareness that I need God’s help and mercy more than I need anything else. Poverty of spirit is getting free of the rule of fear, fear being the great force which restrains us from acts of love. Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be. It is an outlook summed up in a French proverb: “When you die, you carry in your clutched hand only what you gave away.” Poverty of spirit is a letting go of self and of all that keeps you locked in yourself.

“The first beatitude,” comments Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “stands at the threshold of the Kingdom of God . . . Blessed are those who have understood that they are nothing in themselves, possess nothing that they dare call ‘their own’. If they are ‘something’, it is because they are loved of God and because they know for certain that their worth in God’s eyes can be measured by the humiliation of the Son of God.” [From the foreword of The Wisdom of the Desert, Apophthemegmata Patrum, translated by Benedicta Ward; London: Mowbray, revised edition, 1984, p xiv.]

Poverty of any kind is little praised beyond the Bible.

“Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness,” Samuel Johnson warned James Boswell, “for it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.” Johnson only gives a fine polish to advice which has been handed down for countless generations. In one wing of my family it is summed up in a joke — “Rich or poor, it’s best to have money.”

“What this century worships is wealth,” wrote Oscar Wilde in his play, An Ideal Husband. “The God of this century is wealth. To succeed one must have wealth. At all costs one must have wealth.”

“Food, clothing, fuel, rent, taxes, respectability and children,” George Bernard Shaw has Undershaft declare in his play Major Barbara, “nothing can lift those seven millstones from Man’s neck but money; and the spirit cannot soar until the millstones are lifted.” Shaw’s subject was how unbearably tempting money is even to preachers who sing the praises of poverty.

The first beatitude, pointing as it does in the opposite direction, is a permanent thorn in our sides. For twenty centuries men and women, some of them theologians, have been searching for a loophole.

One of the most popular is simply to bracket the beatitudes, along with anything else in the New Testament which seems impractical, as a “counsel of perfection,” advice for monks and nuns, something for the occasional Saint Francis or Mother Theresa rather than the ordinary person. But if one can be a Christian without taking seriously the teachings or example of Christ, the word “Christian” no longer means “a follower of Christ.”

Another approach has been to spiritualize the text: “Jesus of Nazareth was indifferent to material possessions. He didn’t care whether or not his followers were rich or poor. It simply wasn’t important. Only one thing was important — the person’s attitude.”

This approach at least has the virtue of taking the text seriously even if shifting the stress. After all, Christ speaks of “poverty of spirit.” Clearly attitude matters. The poverty Christ calls blessed is useless if it is resented or hated. The person who is poor but is obsessed with what he wishes he owned has become a billionaire in his fantasy life. He may be poor according to economists, but he isn’t poor in spirit.

But is Jesus neutral to wealth itself and only concerned about one’s attitude toward riches? When you look further in the Gospels to see what else he has to say about money, you find Christ never encourages the pursuit of wealth. Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, he teaches, “But seek for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupt and where thieves do not break in or steal.” (Mt 6:19) On another occasion he warns his disciples that it is “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” only adding the consoling words to his anxious listeners that “anything is possible with God.” (Mt 19:24)

Again and again Saint Matthew, a man who had himself been wealthy, draws attention to those words of Jesus which saved him from devoting his life to acquiring and protecting money.

The Greek word used for “poor” in the first beatitude — ptochos — refers not just to a person who possesses very little but someone who is destitute. There is a different word — penes — for a person who has the basic necessities: no luxuries, no savings, nothing superfluous, but is not in debt. He lives from the honest work of his hands and enjoys the respect of his neighbors, while a destitute person has been reduced to begging and has, as Jesus said of himself, “no place to lay his head.” (Mt 8:20)

The state of need Christ describes is urgent and absolute, the desperate condition of need of someone at the very bottom. A good translation of the first beatitude into modern English is, “Blessed are the beggars in spirit…”

Does the first beatitude mean that to follow Christ one has to dispossess himself of everything and become voluntarily destitute?

That depends on what God requires. It is a life-by-life question. There is no one-size-fits-all Christian vocation.

Among the saints, one easily finds those who owned close to nothing and would without hesitation give away what little they still possessed.

One of the Egyptian Desert Fathers sold his most precious possession, his Bible, in order to have alms for the poor, explaining, “I have sold the book which told me ‘sell what you have and give it to the poor'” (Mt 19:21). Among the saints there are those who gave away the last stitch of clothing, becoming as naked as Adam and Eve — like Saint Basil, a Holy Fool of Moscow after whom Russia’s most famous cathedral is named. [See chapter on Holy Fools in Praying With Icons by Jim Forest (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997)]

But sanctity is not the sum of the would-be saint’s empty pockets. There have been many whose feats of asceticism were displays more of pride than of poverty of spirit. Early in his monastic life, John the Dwarf announced to a brother that he was going deeper into the Egyptian desert, declaring that from now on he would live like an angel. Several days later, close to starvation, John knocked again on the brother’s door. “Who is there?” asked the brother. “John.” “No, it can’t be John,” said the brother. “John is now an angel — he no longer needs food and shelter.” Only then did he open his door to the chagrined and hungry John. The chastened monk embraced a humbler, more ordinary poverty. [Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1961), pp 41-2]

The exterior forms of poverty vary from person to person and even from year to year in a particular life. Neither Christ nor the Apostles went naked — we find Christ without clothing in public only on two occasions in his adult life: his baptism and his crucifixion.

Other than Christ himself, Christ’s mother is the paradigm of poverty of spirit. Her unconditional assent to the will of God is a model for every Christian: “Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She is quietly present at every step along the way and with the Apostles after Pentecost. At the marriage feast at Cana, after drawing her son’s attention to the fact that there was no more wine, she instructs the servants of the feast, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) This is her advice to all who follow her son. Whenever we defer our will to the will of God, we open ourselves to God’s transforming power, just as she did.

Dorothy Day, a saint of hospitality and a writer who often recommended voluntary poverty to readers of The Catholic Worker, wore hand-me-down suits and struggled to own as little as possible. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed,” she often said. She was distressed about the irritation she felt when her books were borrowed and not returned — “I am too attached to my library,” she confessed to me more than once. The impressive thing is that this attachment did not cause her to live a life in which her books would have been less likely to disappear.

Another saint of recent times was the Russian Orthodox nun, Mother Maria Skobtsova, whose house of hospitality in Paris opened its door to anyone in need. Her assistance to Jews during the time of the Nazi occupation led to her arrest and later to death in the gas chamber at the Ravensbrück. She saw each person as “the very icon of God incarnate in the world” and sought “to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God” in everyone in need. Her personal possessions fit into one suitcase; her bedroom was a corner in the basement.

Saint Francis of Assisi spoke of having “Sister Poverty” as his bride. “Holy Poverty,” he wrote in his Salutation of the Virtues, “destroys the desire of riches and avarice and the cares of this world.” [Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, translation and introduction by Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., and Ignatius C. Brady, O.F.M. (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), p 152.] He was convinced that voluntary poverty was the only way to overcome war and give witness to the peace of Christ. His robe — a patchwork quilt of rags — is still preserved at the basilica in Assisi.

Henry David Thoreau was no Christian missionary, but he had a Franciscan sensibility about the problem of wealth. As he wrote in Walden in the chapter on economy: “How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood-lot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.”

Mother Theresa of Calcutta owned two saris, a rosary, a Bible and a few prayer books. We know her not for what she possessed but what she did — the many years she spent creating communities to care for dying people abandoned by others and to give assistance to pregnant women under pressure to abort their unborn children. She regarded the greatest poverty not as something material but as lack of faith and being closed in on oneself.

Far more often than not, saints had little personal property and what they possessed, they held lightly. Yet there are also other saints who, at least for a substantial part of their lives, possessed a great deal and lived in comfort, rarely worrying about a roof over their heads or a pillow under it. As Saint Leo the Great observed: “While it cannot be doubted that poverty of spirit is more easily acquired by the poor than the rich, for submissiveness is the companion of those in want, even in many of the rich is found that spirit which uses its abundance not for the increasing of its pride but on works of mercy, regarding as the highest profit that which it expends in the relief of others’ hardships.” [St. Leo the Great, Homily XCV, “On the Beatitudes.”]

Saint Thomas More, a chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII, owned a large and handsome house and was waited on by servants until he was made a prisoner in the Tower of London. Finally he was beheaded for his opposition to the king’s divorce of his first wife. He had been a generous man but not a poor one until poverty and confinement were forced upon him. More’s lively spirit and inner freedom even while a prisoner is revealed in an exchange when More was being tried. Lord Rich said to him, “You know that if you won’t take an oath to the King, then you are going to have to leave behind your lovely home in Chelsea and your wife and your children and it’s only a question of taking an oath, otherwise you will die.” More replied: “I die today, my Lord, and you die tomorrow.”

One of the widely revered saints of the Orthodox Church, Prince Vladimir of Kiev, led the people of early Russia to baptism in the year 988. Before his conversion Vladimir was far from saintly; Saint Nestor, in his Chronicle, described him as a man who had been “insatiable in vice.” The Slavic people regard him as a saint not only for bringing the people of Kiev to the Dnieper River for baptism but because, following his conversion, he himself gave a heroic example of what it meant to follow Christ. He became renowned for his care of the poor, of orphans and the sick. The palace gates were opened to the hungry. He built hospices for the aged. He banned torture and executions. Yet he lived in a palace and dressed like the royalty he was.

Two of his sons, rather than shed the blood of an ambitious brother, chose to die without defending themselves. The young princes, Boris and Gleb, were the first Russians to be recognized as saints. Yet they too had been finely dressed and had known royal comforts.

One could fill a library with books about saints who lived in fine houses and had wine with their meals, and a still larger library with the lives of saints who counted it wealth to sleep on a straw-filled mattress and eat a piece of stale bread from time to time. Their superficial differences are stunning, yet when you look closely at the life of any saint, you discover what they had or didn’t have was part of their particular obedience to Christ. All the saints are linked by poverty of spirit. All the saints lived an ascetic life. All of them approached God in a state of destitution, seeking as a matter of life or death to know God’s will in their lives and to live it, for God not only creates us but gives each of us a unique identity, a unique responsibility, a unique path to follow on the way to heaven. Poverty of spirit — the condition of being a spiritual beggar — is seeking to live God’s will rather than one’s own.

For most of us, our vocational obedience involves responsibility for material objects as well as earning and spending money. The vocation of parenthood involves many years of caring for the lives of children, trying to provide both for their physical and spiritual needs. Few people do not require certain tools, a place to live, and a variety of possessions. If you are a plumber or mechanic, there are tools which are essential to your work. If you are a scholar, you will need a substantial library or access to one. Nor are the possessions we need only connected to our work; they may also be connected to spiritual and intellectual growth.

What is crucial is the way we possess what we possess, the care we take not to let possessions take ownership of our souls, and how we use what we have to express God’s mercy.

The underlying questions are: What is of ultimate significance in our lives? Our own comfort and reputation? Our own importance? Or the love of God and caring for those around us? One way or another, how we relate to material objects reveals who we are, the condition of our soul, and whether we are citizens of heaven or hell.

One of the great saints of the Egyptian desert, Abba Dorotheos, told a story which reveals poverty of spirit in such a way that an Alexandrian of great importance was able to grasp it:

I remember once we had a conversation about humility. One of the notable citizens of the city was amazed on hearing our words that the nearer one draws to God, the more he sees himself to be a sinner. Not understanding, he asked, “How can this be?” I said to him: “Notable citizen, tell me how do you rank yourself in your own city?” He answered: “I regard myself as first in the city.” I say to him, “If you should go to Caesarea, how would you regard yourself there? He answered, “As the least of the civic leaders there.” Then I asked, “And if you should travel to Antioch, how would you regard yourself there?” “There,” he answered, “I would consider myself as one of the common people.” “And if,” I asked, “you should go to Constantinople and approach the Emperor, how would you see yourself there?” And he answered: “Almost as nothing.” Then I answered him, “So it is also with the saints. The nearer they draw to God, the more they see themselves to be sinners.”

…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

We are joined to one another and to Christ like flour in a loaf.

— Saint John Chrysostom, “On I Corinthians,” XXI, 4

Notice that Christ uses the present tense, not the future — it isn’t “theirs will be the kingdom of heaven” but “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Because of the Jewish aversion to speaking directly of the Creator as God, Saint Matthew consistently uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” The other three Gospel authors speak of the “kingdom of God.” The meaning in all four Gospels is the same.)

The cartoon image of heaven — a domain in the clouds whose residents, having retired from earthly existence and having lived more-or-less virtuous lives, are rewarded with white robes, angel wings and golden harps — is almost as uninviting as the usual stereotype of hell: a cavern in a volcano occupied by naked people being tormented by demons. At least this image of hell has a biblical basis: Christ speaks of hell as “an unquenchable fire.” (Mk 9:42) But a heaven of clouds, harps and bathrobes has no connection to the Gospel.

This past summer Nancy and I found vivid imagery of heaven and hell when we camped near the town of Autun in the countryside southwest of Dijon in France. Here, in the 12th century Cathedral of Saint Lazarus, are some of the finest carvings made in the Romanesque era, the work of a man named Giselbertus who left us nothing but his vision of the Gospel. The most impressive carving of all is the large tympanum over the church entrance in which, within a wide half-circle, Giselbertus offers a deeply insightful vision of the Last Judgment.

At the center, far larger than any other figure, is Christ enthroned within an angel-borne oval which gives a symbolic shape to eternity and the kingdom of heaven. His arms are opened in a simple gesture of greeting, as if saying, “Welcome, you blessed of my Father, into the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world…” (Mt 25:34)

The sun and moon are to the right and left of his face, Mary, his mother, is enthroned to one side, while beneath her is a group of Apostles. On the other side there is a large scale on which a man is being weighed while a hideous devil struggles to tilt the scale in hell’s favor. Meanwhile a lithe angel in fluted robes, with the lightest touch, overcomes Satan’s effort.

At the lowest level of the tympanum, beneath Christ’s feet and stretching the full width of the church’s central doors, is a long row of people standing on their coffins, freshly raised from the dead. A sword-bearing angel at the center of the figures looks with sorrow rather than outrage toward the wretched figures on the right whose lives have brought them damnation. Each of the damned seems closed in on himself, fascinated with his own misery. The remarkable thing is that not one of them notices Christ. They didn’t see him in life and don’t see him in the afterlife either.

In contrast, all the saved but one are looking in enraptured amazement toward Christ; the one exception, a child, points at Christ with one hand while telling a guardian angel what he has seen.

The Gospel according to Giselbertus is that we are in heaven whenever we see Christ or are aware of his presence. Heaven is participation in God’s being. It is seeing what has always been close at hand, what was always at the heart of reality, but somehow was barely recognized, glimpsed “as through a glass darkly.” (I Cor 13:12)

We learn from the first beatitude that those whose treasure is God are already within the borders of the kingdom of heaven. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” said the great mystic Saint Catherine of Siena, “because he said, ‘I am the way.'” It is similar to the medieval proverb of pilgrims walking to holy places: “If you do not travel with him whom you seek, you will not find him at the end of your journey.”

“What do you mean when you speak about the kingdom of heaven?” The disciples must often have asked this question because the Gospel is so full of his answers.

Christ responds with parables, one of the longest being about forgiveness. He says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” The story centers on a slave who owed the king a fortune, ten thousand talents — a way of saying he owed an unpayable amount; one talent was worth more than a laborer earned in 15 years. The king says he is going to sell the slave along with all his family and possessions, but the slave falls to his knees, begs the king’s patience, and is forgiven his debt. Immediately afterward, the slave encounters a man who owes him a hundred denarii (one denarius was the wage a laborer received for day’s work). The man with the smaller debt begs patience, promising he will repay, but the appeal is refused and the man is sent to prison. Hearing what happened, the king chastises the debtor he had forgiven: “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” The enraged king orders the unforgiving man punished until his own debt is paid. Christ concludes the parable saying, “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Mt 18:21-35)

It is impossible to miss the point. The kingdom of heaven exists wherever one person forgives another, and not superficially, but “from the heart.” The kingdom of heaven is wherever mercy rules rather than vengeance.

Elsewhere in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven with a mustard seed. From the smallest of seeds springs up a shrub so big that “birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Mt 13:31-32) Then comes a similar image: the kingdom of heaven it is “like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Mt 13:33)

A tiny seed, a small measure of yeast, a pinch of salt, a spark of light in the darkness — tiny things are capable of vast expansion and a transforming effect.

Christ says the kingdom of heaven is like “a treasure hidden in a field” for which the joyful finder sells everything in order to own that field.” (Mt 13:43) Or it is like “a pearl of great value” for which one would sell everything in order to obtain it. (Mt 13:44) The awareness of God’s presence is “the buried treasure” and “the pearl of great price.” We enter the kingdom of heaven when nothing is more important than the absolute beauty of God.

In another parable from Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that the “kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seeds in his field, but while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.” The owner of the field orders his workers to leave the weeds alone so that they will not accidentally uproot any of the wheat, instructing them to wait until the harvest, then separate the weeds and burn them. (Mt 13:24-30) Later he uses a similar metaphor — the kingdom of heaven is like “a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” Only after catching them are those worth keeping separated from those which are worthless. (Mt 13:34) Both metaphors focus on God’s patience, letting weeds grow with wheat in the field and gathering every sort of fish in the same net. We are living in the kingdom of God when we respect the lives of those around us no matter what they are like.

Drawing on a range of simple images, Jesus teaches his disciples that we enter the kingdom of heaven when we allow God’s forgiveness, patience and mercy to shape our response to others. The kingdom of heaven exists when we refuse to destroy or punish, leaving punishment to God at the Last Judgment.

In Saint Luke’s Gospel, a group of Pharisees asks Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming. He responds, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For in fact the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21) Saint Paul says something similar in his letter the Colossian Church: “The Father has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Col 1:13) The kingdom of God is simply life in Christ — not a concept of Christ or trying to live according to principles we think of as Christian, but living in his presence, being aware of him in the things and people which surround us, no matter where we are. We understand that our obedience is to Christ and that all other demands made on our lives and resources are to be respected only if they are not in conflict with the commandments of Christ.

There is a story told by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko that gives us a glimpse of a sudden experience of the kingdom of heaven — in Russia, in the midst of war, with Stalin ruling from the Kremlin, and Hitler’s armies pushing eastward.

In 1944, Yevtushenko’s mother took him from Siberia to Moscow. They were in the huge crowd which witnessed a procession of twenty-thousand German prisoners of war being marched across Red Square.

Yevtushenko recalls in his autobiography:

The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women — Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.

At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebeian victors. “They smell of perfume, the bastards,” someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.

All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent — the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.

Then I saw an elderly woman in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying, “Let me through.” There must have been something about her which made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.”

[Yevgeny Yevtushenko, A Precocious Autobiography (New York: Dutton, 1963).]

This is the sort of story most history books pass over — miraculous moments when enmity is replaced by mercy, compassion opens the way to actions of healing and forgiveness, and plain poverty becomes poverty of spirit. The gesture of a single old woman broke through what Saint Paul describes as “the dividing wall of enmity.” (Eph 2:14) Her eyes had been opened to see suffering German boys rather than murderous Nazi soldiers. Her response was to give away what little she had, a carefully saved piece of black bread. Afterward was she surprised by what she did and the flood of gifts others had made in the wake of her small gesture of love? It was a moment when the kingdom of heaven flooded across Red Square.

[This is an extract from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, 1999; not to be published without the author’s permission]

Ladder of the Beatitudes – Blessed

In English the first verses of the Sermon on the Mount are called “the beatitudes.” The traditional Russian phrase is “the commandments of blessedness.” The first word of each beatitude isn’t an everyday word. We have to ask ourselves before going further what blessed and beatitude mean.

Beatitude comes from the Latin word beatus, meaning happy, fortunate, blissful. In the context of the gods in Elysium, it meant supremely happy, in a state of pure bliss. In the late fourth century, beatus was the word Saint Jerome opted for in his translation of the “blessed are” verses.

“I would expect that, like so many other Latin writers, Jerome was assuming that the meaning would enlarge within its textual context,” Latin scholar Harold Isbell tells me. “However don’t overlook the possibility that because Greek is a more nuanced language, it conveys degrees of meaning which the hard-headed Roman would not suspect. Then there is ‘beatific,’ as in ‘beatific vision,’ which in the Christian tradition of the west refers specifically to the vision of God, an entirely appropriate but quite unmerited fruit of God’s creative act.”

While most English Bibles use “blessed,” some modern translations prefer “happy”: “How happy are the poor of spirit…”

“‘Happy’ isn’t good enough,” Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild once told me. “The biblical translator who uses such a word should change jobs, maybe write TV comedies with nice happy endings. The problem is that, if you decide you don’t like ‘blessed,’ there isn’t a single English word which can take its place. You might use a phrase like ‘on the right track’ or ‘going in the right direction.’ Sin means being off the track, missing the target. Being ‘blessed’ means you aren’t lost — you’re on the path the Creator intends you to be on. But what you recognize as a blessing may look like an affliction to an outsider. Exchanging ‘blessed’ for ‘happy’ trivializes the biblical word. You might as well sum up the Bible with a slogan like, ‘Have a nice day .'”

“Happy” in some respects makes for an unhappy translation. Its root is hap, the Middle English word for “luck.” The word happen is a daughter word. A happenstance approach to life is to let things happen as they will, to depend on the roll of the dice. To act in a haphazard manner is to do things by chance. To be hapless is to be unlucky, but to have good luck is to be a winner. The lucky person, the happy person, has things going his way. We say certain people were born under a lucky star — they seem to get all the breaks, everything from good looks to money in the bank.

The founding fathers of the United States, in declaring independence from Britain, recognized “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights. For them, the pursuit of happiness meant each person had the right to seek his own good fortune and not simply be the servant of another. In our era, in which happiness is somewhere between a human right and a social duty, many people feel guilty for failing to be continually happy.

But what about the word blessed? This was the word chosen by the translators of the Authorized Version in the seventeenth century. Blessed meant something consecrated to or belonging to God.

Several Hebrew words have been translated as “blessed,” beginning with baruk, as in the verse: “And God blessed them [the first man and woman], saying, Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). Baruk is linked to kneeling — a blessing would be received while kneeling in a posture of respect and submission.

“Baruk is frequently applied to God, indeed the berakah is the characteristic Jewish prayer,” Archimandrite Ephrem Lash of the Monastery of Saint Andrew in Manchester explained to me. “The typical Jewish prayer begins, ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God…’ There is even a berakah for forgetting the correct berakah. This has been taken into Christianity, in particular into Orthodoxy, where no service can begin without a berakah — ‘Blessed is our God now and forever and unto the ages of ages’, or ‘Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…'”

Ashre is another Hebrew word which has been translated as “blessed.” It is an exclamation — “O the good fortune!” The root meaning is “to go straight, to advance.” The person of whom one can say ashre ha-ish is one for whom things are on the right track, going along a straight way, making headway. It is often used in the Book of Psalms, as seen in the first psalm: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The next verse offers a metaphor of what it is like to be blessed — such a person “is like a tree planted by streams of water.”

There is the similar Hebrew word ashar. In the Book of Proverbs it is used in a passage describing the ideal woman: “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her” (Prov 31:28).

All the Gospels were first written in Greek. In those passages where “blessed” is a verb, the Greek is eulogeo (“to bless”) — an action associated with praise, thanksgiving and consecration, and therefore used in liturgical contexts. For example:

And as they ate, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take, eat, this is my body’.

(Mark 14:22)

Where “blessed” is used as an adjective, it is a translation of makarios. It is makarios which is used throughout the beatitudes. We also hear it also in such texts as,

Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear” and, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

(Mt 13:16, 16:17)

In classical Greek makar was associated with the immortal gods. Kari means fate or death, but with the negative prefix “ma” the word means being deathless, no longer subject to fate, a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods, the hoi Makarioi, were the blessed ones.

“The interesting thing about ashre is that it is never, so far as I know, applied to God,” Archimandrite Ephrem points out. “On the other hand the Greek makar starts life as precisely something which the gods are, though the related adjective makarios is more commonly applied to humans.”

In Christian use, makarios came increasingly to mean sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of happenstance running through it. There is no higher gift. We are not simply capable of an abstract awareness that God exists or of studying God as an astronomer might study the night sky all the while knowing the stars are unbridgeable distances away, that their light may be centuries old by the time it reaches our eyes and that the objects which produced the light may no longer exist. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being blessed with qualities which seem humanly impossible.

[This is an extract from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, 1999; not to be published without the author’s permission]