Icons and the Mysteries: Meeting God in the Material World — fourth lecture
Yesterday we got half way up the ladder of the Beatitudes. Let’s continue climbing.
Now we come to the Beatitude of mercy: Risen from the dead are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.
Here we would do well to look at the icon of the Last Judgment, the icon of Christ’s mercy to those who were merciful — but also of the hell we make for ourselves to the extent we reject mercy from our lives. We could spend a great deal of time studying the icon in detail. I cannot think of another icon with so much packed into it: Christ the main figure, the Theotokos on one side, John the Forerunner on the other, apostles in thrones on either side, archangels standing behind them. One tier below there are angels with scrolls, a way of showing that what each person did or failed to do is not forgotten. In that same tier on either side we see people awaiting judgment. There is also the snake-like dragon whose body serves as the pathway to hell. Much to think about! But time factors are such that I will focus on what is most basic in the image. It is a solemn warning the Church places before each of us, an uncomfortable reminder that we are held accountable for our lives. We will be judged. Indeed each day of our lives is a day of judgment. We are likely to be forever where we choose to be today. If you make hellish choices day after day, don’t be surprised if hell becomes your permanent address. Christ has already told us what we will hear at the Last Judgment. It’s rather surprising. We are not asked to recite the Lord Prayer’s or the Creed nor asked how often we attended church services or served on the parish council. We are asked if we loved Christ in the least person.
“Welcome into the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world because I was hungry and you fed me…. I tell you solemnly that what you did to the least person you did to me.” From childhood onward we are told over and over again that God loves us. What does he expect of us? To let the love given to us pass through our lives like water through a canal in order to reach our neighbor, and not only the neighbor we like but the neighbor we don’t like, the neighbor who is an enemy.
But if having been part of the Church isn’t mentioned in what Christ teaches us about the Last Judgment, why bother being in the Church? Because the Church is where we learn to be merciful, where we learn to share with others the mercy we have been given. It is also where we’re able to seek forgiveness when we fail. The Church is a school both of mercy and forgiveness. It makes our lives whole. It gives us the capacity to see Christ in the least person. If we wish to receive Christ in the chalice, St. John Chrysostom said over and over again, we must also meet him naked and hungry outside the church door.
The recently canonized nun St. Maria of Paris — Mother Maria Skobtsova — gives us a dramatic example of what it is like to become a channel of Christ’s mercy.
She was born in 1891 into an aristocratic family in Riga, in those days part of Russia. After a crisis of faith following her father’s early death, she found her way back to belief and became the first woman to study at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. In the period of impending revolution she joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party, socialists who were not part of Lenin’s party, but when the Bolsheviks overthrew the democratic government in October 1917, she left for her childhood home, Anapa, on the Black Sea coast. There she married an anti-Bolshevik officer, bore two children, and also served as mayor, in the process facing abuse from both the left and the right. Then, in 1923 she joined the throng of refugees uprooted by revolution and civil war and made her circuitous way to France.
In Paris her daughter Nastia died of meningitis, a tragedy that initiated a profound conversion. She emerged from her mourning with a determination to seek “a more authentic and purified life.” She felt she saw a “new road before me and a new meaning in life… to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.” Immersing herself in efforts to assist destitute Russian refugees, she sought them out in prisons, hospitals, mental asylums, and in the slums. Increasingly she emphasized the religious dimension of this work, the insight that “each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” With this recognition came the need “to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God” in her brothers and sisters.
After her marriage ended her bishop urged her to become a nun, but she agreed only when he gave her the assurance that she would be free to develop a new type of monasticism, engaged in the world and marked by the “complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.”
In 1932 she made her monastic profession and became Mother Maria. Rejecting monastic enclosure, she leased a house in Paris with space enough for a chapel, a soup kitchen, and a shelter for destitute refugees. Her “cell” was a cot in the basement beside the boiler.
Her house became a center not only for the works of mercy but for dialogue. While her kitchen was crowded with the “down and out,” the drawing room — and in the summer, the backyard — became a place where some of the leading emigre intellectuals of Paris — people like Nicolae Berdyaev, Fr Serge Bulgakov and Ilya Fondaminsky — debated the relation between faith and the social questions of the day. Out of their discussions a new movement was born, Orthodox Action, committed to realizing the social implications of the gospel. “The meaning of the liturgy must be translated into life,” said Mother Maria. “It is why Christ came into the world and why he gave us our liturgy.”
The German occupation of Paris began in 1940. In the context of Nazi racism, her commitment to seek out and revere each person as an icon of God put her life at risk. Aside from normal hospitality to the poor, she, her chaplain, Father Dimitri Klepinin, her son, Yuri, and all the others working with them did all they could to assist Jews and others under threat from the Nazis. During the fearful days of July 1942, when thousands of Jews were rounded up and brought to a sports stadium not far from Mother Maria’s house of hospitality at 77 rue to Lourmel, Mother Maria succeeded in penetrating the sports stadium and, assisted by garbage collectors, smuggled out Jewish children in garbage bins.
Though aware she was under Gestapo surveillance, she continued her work in behalf of Jews. To give up was out of the question, she told friends. A diary entry from that period of her life reveals the fidelity God had given her: “There is one moment when you start burning with love and you have the inner desire to throw yourself at the feet of some other human being. This one moment is enough. Immediately you know that instead of losing your life, it is being given back to you twofold.”
Finally she, her son Yuri, and Father Dimitri were arrested . They readily admitted the charge of helping Jews elude police roundups — it was nothing more than their Christian duty.
The three were sent to a French concentration camp where Father Dimitri managed to serve the liturgy each day and to begin preparing Yuri for ordination.
In his last letter to friends in Paris, Yuri wrote, “I am absolutely calm, even somewhat proud to share Mama’s fate. I promise you I will bear everything with dignity. Whatever happens, sooner or later we shall all be together. I can say in all honesty that I am not afraid of anything any longer… I ask anyone whom I have hurt in any way to forgive me. Christ be with you!” In December, Father Dimitri and Yuri were transferred to Buchenwald, where both died that winter. Yuri was twenty-four.
Sent to the notorious Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp north of Berlin, Mother Maria managed to survive almost to the war’s end, all the while caring for the bodies and souls of her fellow prisoners. She occasionally traded bread for needle and thread in order to embroider images that gave her strength. Her last work of art was an embroidered icon of Mary, the mother of God, holding the child Jesus, his hands and feet already bearing the wounds of the cross.
On Good Friday, March 31, 1945, with the gunfire of approaching Russian troops audible in the distance, Mother Maria was “selected” for death. According to one witness, she took the place of a Jewish prisoner who was to be sent to the gas chamber and died in her place.
She is a saint who saw life as an opportunity to find the icon of Christ hidden in ordinary people, especially the very poor and persecuted. In a passage from one of her essays she wrote: “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners? That is all I shall be asked.”
On the first weekend of May, Mother Maria, her son Yuri, Fr Dimitri and their friend and fellow martyr Ilya Fondaminsky were added to the Church calendar. People and clergy from many countries and jurisdictions came together to celebrate Christ’s victory over evil, fear and death through the witness given by these brave followers of the Gospel.
Let’s step to the next rung: Risen from the dead are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
What is a pure heart? A heart free of possessiveness, a heart capable of mourning, a heart that thirsts for what is right, a merciful heart, a loving heart, an undivided heart, a heart free of distraction, a heart undamaged by lies.
Spiritual virtues that defend the heart are memory, awareness, watchfulness, wakefulness, attention, hope, faith, and love. Opposing purity of heart is lust of any kind — lust for wealth, for recognition, for power, for vengeance, for sexual access to others — whether indulged through action or imagination.
In classical Greek the word for “pure” — katharos — can be applied to anything without taint, stain, blemish, or impurity: a wine that has not been watered down, gold without alloy, fresh spring water clear as air, bread made of the best ingredients, pure beer, good wine. It can also refer to language unpolluted by lies, half-truths and slogans; it can signify a person without vices — an official who would never take a bribe, or a man who is perfectly truthful and straightforward.
In the Old Testament purity had to do primarily with ritual life and its disciplines: foods that could be eaten, or correctly performed ceremonial washings. But in the gospels ritual purity is no longer a pressing issue, though the symbolism of a ritual bath was central to John the Baptist’s call to repentance and was to become the foundational Christian sacrament: baptism.
Christ stresses purity of heart. He compares those who follow the laws of purity but lack mercy with whitewashed tombs: beautiful and clean on the outside but filled with dead bones and the stench of death. A clean body is less important than a clean heart.
Why such stress on the heart in the gospel? In our brain-centered society it ought to surprise us that Christ didn’t say, “How fortunate are the pure in mind,” or better yet, “Blessed are the brilliant in mind.” We are, after all, a people who tend to regard the brain as the core of the self — not the soul or heart. It’s high praise to be described as “bright.” Those recognized as clever have a shot at joining the aristocracy of the intelligent and may find themselves hugely rewarded. No one aspires to be labeled “slow” or “dense.” It is a sign of the poverty of our culture that “stupid” is nearly a curse word or even a license to kill — a pregnant woman who knows she is bearing a child with Down’s syndrome is often urged to have an abortion.
The brain has come up in the world while the heart has been demoted to nothing more than the muscle in charge of pumping blood. But for thousands of years the heart was regarded as far more: the hub of human identity and our capacity to love, the core not only of our physical but of our spiritual life. The heart is where everything in us is held together. The heart was where we encountered God.
We sense a pure heart in the face of any saintly person whether an inspiring grandmother known only to a few or a saint whose icon is found in every parish church.
Consider one of the best loved saints of Russia, Seraphim of Sarov, a contemporary of Tsar Peter the Great, a man as meek as the tsar was mighty. I have never been in a Russian church that did not have Seraphim’s icon.
Seraphim grew up in a merchant family in Kursk and had his first vision of the mother of God when he was nine and in danger of death after a fall from scaffolding. He began monastic life in 1778, when he was nineteen. Years later, after ordination as a priest in 1793, he received permission to live in solitude in a log cabin several miles from his community. It was, he said, his “Holy Land.” Here he maintained a life of prayer, read the Bible, studied texts by and about the saints, tended his garden, chopped wood, and embraced austerities reminiscent of the Desert Fathers. Though he was once nearly beaten to death by three robbers who had heard there was a treasure hidden in his hermitage, he was never attacked by the wild animals he lived among. (When the assailants were later arrested, Seraphim tried to have them excused from their crime.) Visitors sometimes found him sharing his ration of bread with bears, wolves, lizards, and snakes. “How is it,” he was asked, “that you have enough bread in your bag for all of them?” “There is always enough,” Seraphim answered. On another occasion he explained that he, after all, understood fasting but the bear did not.
Late in his life his remote cabin became a place of pilgrimage for a river of people — even Tsar Alexander the First was among his guests.
One of those brought to him was a gravely-ill wealthy landowner. “What, you have come to look upon poor Seraphim?” the hermit asked. After the man explained his condition, Seraphim prayed over him and the man was healed. In his joy he asked Seraphim how he could express his gratitude. Insisting that he had done nothing but pray and that only God can heal, Saint Seraphim advised the rich man to give away everything he possessed, free his serfs, and live in holy poverty. With all this the man complied. Some might regard the man’s embracing of poverty as a greater miracle than the healing of his body.
In talks with visitors Saint Seraphim stressed “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit” in order that the kingdom of God can take possession of the heart. A man of constant prayer and fasting, Seraphim reminded others that ascetic practice was only a means to a greater end: “Prayer, fasting, watching may be good in themselves; yet it is not in these practices alone that the goal of our Christian life is found, though they are necessary means for its attainment. The true goal consists in our acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.” On occasion he put the message even more simply: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and thousands around you will be saved.”
At the core of Seraphim’s spiritual life was Christ’s resurrection. In his later years he wore white, the Paschal color, rather than the usual monastic black. No matter what season of the year, he was likely to greet visitors with the Paschal exclamation: “Christ is risen!” Paschal gladness affected even his way of speaking to others — he addressed each of his spiritual children as “my joy.”
When he died in 1833, at age seventy-one, Seraphim was at prayer on his knees before an icon of the mother of God. He had labored long and hard to free himself of all obstacles to God and finally was given a heart so pure that it seems no one can come near him, or kiss his icon, without being drawn toward purity of heart.
Purification of the heart is the endless struggle of seeking a more God-centered life. It is the minute-to-minute discipline of trying to be so aware of God’s presence that the heart has no space for our own worries, ambitions, irritations or attention to appearances. Prayer is essential to this endeavor, whether reciting prayers we know by heart or spontaneous prayer or reading or music or using any of the senses with a heightened awareness of the sacred. Prayer refers to all we do in order to turn our attention toward God.
An essential element in Seraphim’s life was the Jesus Prayer, also known as the Prayer of the Heart. Seraphim taught novices in his care, “Coming or going, sitting or standing, working or in church, let this prayer always be on your lips: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ The whole art [of prayer] is there. With this prayer in your heart you will find inward peace and sobriety of body and soul.” Monastic literature and practice refer to the prayer as being “the whole gospel in one sentence.”
The next rung up is: “Risen from the dead are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Now we are very far up the ladder. It is no easy thing to be a peacemaker. It is impossible without all that represented by the lower rungs. Another word for peacemaking is healer. Peacemaking is a healing art. A peacemaker is someone who tries to heal divisions that cut people off from each other and have made them into enemies. It is the restoration of communion with God through the restoration of communion with one’s neighbor.
A few years ago in Moscow I had the opportunity to watch two restorers cleaning a large icon of Saint Nicholas. This too was a work of healing. They estimated the dark panel was three hundred years old. As decades passed and thousands of candles burned before it, the image had become increasingly hidden under smoke-absorbing varnish until the panel was almost black. Using alcohol and balls of cotton, their gentle, painstaking efforts gradually revealed sharp lines and bright colors that brought the icon back to life. I discovered I was witnessing a small resurrection.
People are also icons, but finding the image of God in another person often requires learning to see through a great deal of grime and smokey varnish.
St. John of Kronstadt, who did so much to draw people to receive communion more often, put it in these words: “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”
To be a peacemaker requires developing a spiritual life that can discover the image of God even in a very damaged and dangerous person.
I regard the icon of the Great Martyr St. George as an icon of peacemaking.
You know the legend. It concerns a dragon who lived in a lake in the region of Cappadocia, Asia Minor. The terrified local people, all pagans, gradually fed him their children to appease the dragon’s rage. Finally it was the turn of the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, to be sacrificed. She was going toward the lake to meet her doom, when St. George appeared riding a white horse. He prayed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then transfixed the dragon with his lance, wounding but not killing the beast. Afterward Elizabeth used her belt as a leash to lead the vanquished creature into the city. The dragon followed Elizabeth, says the Legenda Aurea of Blessed James de Voragine, “as if it had been a meek beast.” George was offered a great treasure as his reward but refused it, asking only that the local people, until then pagans, would prepare themselves to be baptized.
This wonderful tale emerged long after George had died a martyr’s death in the 4th Century. The real George battled no dragon and probably had no white horse. It isn’t even certain he was a soldier, though he may well have been and in older icons is shown wearing army clothing. Yet in another sense George and every Christian confessing his faith in a hostile world is battling dragons. George was living in the time of the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian, when many Christians were being arrested and taken away to torturers and executioners. No one would have condemned him for keeping silent about his faith and hoping the storm would pass. Instead he 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 and put to death. His witness is said to have led to the conversion of many and given courage to others who were already baptized. The dragon George fought against was his own fear and the panic some of those around them must have experienced in that period of many martyrs. But he battled not only fear. The dragon is a symbol of evil.
The icons of St. George slaying the dragon are simple but powerful images of the struggle against evil as well, as the fear that makes us complicit in evil. The white horse St. George rides is a graceful creature as light as air and as fearless as his rider — a symbol of the courage God gives to those willing to receive it. Notice how thin the spear is — nothing like an actual spear but at thin as a pencil. The point is that it is not a weapon in the usual sense. Another significant detail is the way George holds the spear — not tightly grasped but resting lightly in his hand. This means that it is the power of God, not the power of man, that overcomes evil. In many versions of the icon we see the actual nature of the martyr’s weapon in his battle with the dragon of evil — it is the power of the holy and life-giving Cross, the cross piece of which is shown at the top of the spear. There is also the dispassion in George’s face. It shows not a trace of anger, hatred or anxiety. Often the hand of the Savior is extended from heaven in a sign of blessing.
Peacemaking is not simply letting your hand hang by your side and doing no harm to others. It is taking part in the struggle against what St. Paul refers to as the principalities and powers. Indeed it is hard to think of a passage in the New Testament better matched to this icon than this section of St. Pauls’s letter to the Ephesians:
“For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
This is, to use a phrase of Church Father Clement of Alexandria, combat in “an army that sheds no blood.”
Reaching the next rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes does not require a great leap: “Risen from the dead are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.”
In fact in the icon of St. George we have already reached this rung. George is one of the great number of martyrs from Christianity’s first centuries. In this very ancient example, from St. Catherine’s Monastery, we see him on one side of the Theotokos, the martyr St. Theodore on the other. Even in our own day, it is not uncommon to be punished in some way for attempting to live the Gospel. In our own society it isn’t likely to involve torture and execution, but we might very well be regarded as a bit stupid, naive, out of touch, et cetera. For example, if you were to decide that it is not a Christ-like action to kill an enemy and therefore refused to take part in war, you might under some circumstances be sent to prison. But this is a very mild punishment compared to what Christians have suffered for their faith. Down through the centuries huge numbers of Christians have suffered and millions have died because of their refusal to renounce their faith or for actions taken which were a confession of faith. Such suffering is happening to this day.
But the climax of the Beatitudes is not suffering but joy: Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
This brings us to the Pascal icons. Here are the first human witnesses of the Resurrection, who have come to the tomb to anoint the corpse of Jesus even though they were unsure how they would manage to gain access, as the tomb’s entrance was blocked by a large stone.
Instead they discover an empty tomb, find the abandoned burial clothes, and receive an angelic message: “He is risen.”
Perhaps even more striking is the icon of Christ harrowing Hell. This example is perhaps the best, not to be missed if every you can visit the Church at Chora in Istanbul. Icons often show what the unaided human eye cannot see, in this case Christ’s activity after his own death on the Cross. He is not simply a dead body in the sealed tomb but a warrior who has conquered the kingdom of death. Here see Christ standing on the demolished gates of the underworld, while Satan in chains is falling with his locks and keys into the abyss. Meanwhile Christ raises a man and a woman, Adam and Eve, from their tombs. It is one of the greatest of icons — if ever you visit Istanbul, please be sure to see it. Notice that behind Adam and Eve are those people referred to as “the righteous ancestors” — people who did not know the Gospel but who in various ways prepared the world for the Incarnation. Think of it! Adam and Eve! The two whose calamitous choices in Paradise unleashed the endless avalanche of sin that has troubled the human race down to the present moment. Yet they are first objects of Christ’s mercy in the kingdom of death. It’s a startling icon if you think about it. It’s an icon full of hope for each of us.
If the gospel is true, if the truest thing we can say is that God is love, if following Christ is the sanest and wisest thing we can do in our lives because each step forward brings us closer to the kingdom of God, then we have much to rejoice in. We hear that rejoicing in a vision of Bridget of Kildaire, one of the great saints and mystics of Ireland. She gives us a canticle of salvation which makes a good ending for these four lectures:
I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.
I should like excellent meats of belief and pure piety.
I should like flails of penance at my house.
I should like the men of heaven at my house;
I should like barrels of peace at their disposal;
I should like vessels of charity for distribution;
I should like for them cellars of mercy.
I should like cheerfulness to be in their drinking.
I should like Jesus to be there among them.
I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I should like the people of heaven, the poor, to be gathered around us from all parts.