Henri Nouwen: a Western Explorer of the Christian East

Henri Nouwen

(a chapter from Remembering Henri edited by Gerry Twomey and Claude Pomerleau; published by Orbis Books in August 2006)

By Jim Forest

In a difficult period in my life, Henri Nouwen was my spiritual father. He was an excellent confessor who made it possible for me to share parts of myself that were painful, awkward or embarrassing. He helped me survive hard times and cope with bouts of despair. So I say at the beginning that whatever light I can shine on him is not the result simply of studying his writing, identifying main themes, or analyzing him as if I were studying him through a telescope. He was a person who played — in fact still plays — a role in my life.

Our lives led us both to cross an ocean, though in opposite directions. I find myself living in Henri’s homeland, the Netherlands, while North America became home to Henri. It was unplanned, perhaps one of God’s jokes, but he and I traded places.

Henri was a restless man, constantly on the move. His restlessness brought him from one continent to another. He taught at Notre Dame, then Yale, then Harvard, but could bring himself to stay at none of these distinguished institutions. Searching for community, he was a temporary brother at a Trappist monastery for several extended periods, but found monastic life didn’t suit him, though it helped clear his mind. He had a sabbatical in Latin America and thought for a time he was called to make his life there as a missionary, but then decided this also wasn’t his calling. He finally found a home for himself not in academia or monastic life but with the L’Arche community in Canada — not among the brilliant, but the physically and mentally handicapped plus their downwardly-mobile assistants. Appropriately, he died while traveling — two heart attacks in Holland — while en route to Russia where he intended to make a film about Rembrandt’s painting of “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”

He possessed a remarkable gift for communicating to others through the spoken and written word the fact that a life of faith is one of endless exploration, a pilgrimage second to none. He produced a flood of books, many of which remain in print. Few writers on religious life have been so widely read or been so often translated into other languages. Years after his death, he still has a huge influence on the lives of many people. (He died relatively young, at age 64, in 1996.)

In common with Thomas Merton, he believed that the healing of east-west divisions among Christians are assisted more by a process of east-west integration in the spiritual life than by academic theological conferences. As Merton put this is Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

If I can unite in myself the thought and devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian and the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we cannot do so by imposing one division upon the other. If we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all the divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.

Henri returned to this passage often. Also like Merton, Henri played a major role in the quiet movement of rediscovering icons. It is this area of their search that I wish to focus on in this essay.

The main monument to his love of icons that Henri left to us was his book Behold the Beauty of the Lord. This thin volume remains among the best introductions to icons — very accessible, not at all technical, with a directness and sobriety that one can only describe as icon-like. With his usual immediacy, Henri explains how one icon and then others gained a place in his life and what he had so far learned from long periods of living with four of them: Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon; an icon of Mary holding Christ in her arms; an icon of the face of Christ (also by Rublev); and, finally an icon of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Pentecost.

Of course, Henri had seen icons in art history books, museums, churches and monasteries many times, but it wasn’t until his first visit to the L’Arche community in Trosly, France, in 1983 that he began to see icons with wide-open eyes. Barbara Swanekamp, assistant to L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, had put a reproduction of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity on the table of the room where Henri would be staying. “After gazing for many weeks at the icon,” Henri noted in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “I felt a deep urge to write down what I had gradually learned to see.”

Henri was profoundly sensitive to the visual arts. It was a family trait. In the introduction to his book on icons, he recalls a Chagall painting his parents had purchased early in their marriage when Chagall was hardly known — a watercolor of a vase filled with flowers placed on a sunlit window ledge, a simple yet radiant work that made one aware of God’s silent energy. I recall seeing it when Henri brought me to stay with him at his father’s house. There were many other beautiful works of art in the house — the house was a small museum of fine art — but the Chagall watercolor stood out from the rest and still remains a fresh memory. “The flowers of Chagall,” Henri writes in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “come to mind as I wondered why those four icons have become so important to me.”

The connection does not surprise me. Chagall’s work was deeply influenced by iconography. In some of his paintings the link is made explicit, but it is always there in more subtle ways. Chagall’s work in was never enslaved to the rules of perspective or to the physics of gravity. People and animals fly. Fiddlers play on rooftops. Husbands and wives float in the kitchen. Like an iconographer, Chagall made his canvas a window opening on the invisible world and the life of the soul. It may be that the Chagall painting Henri grew up with helped awaken in him a capacity to appreciate icons and understand their special language.

I remember Henri coming to visit us in Holland following his stay at Trosly. He was very excited about the gift he had brought with him, a reproduction of the Holy Trinity icon he had bought that morning in a shop in Paris. Though he had not yet seen the actual icon — it was in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow — he was confidant that the print came as close to the real thing as print technology would allow.

Though I had seen icons from time to time, until that day I had taken only a meager interest in them. Merton’s enthusiasm for them had been a mystery to me. It wasn’t until Henri’s visit that finally I began to see them with a similar excitement.

I vividly recall sitting at Henri’s side as he explored, with childlike fascination, every tiny detail of the Holy Trinity icon. I think he remarked first on the utterly submissive faces of the three angelic figures, each inclined toward the other, in a silent dialogue of love. He considered their profound stillness and yet warmth and vitality. Then, we looked at the colors Andrei Rublev had chosen, though even the best reproduction can only hint at what Rublev had actually achieved, as I was to see for myself not long afterward when I first visited the Tretyakov Gallery. Henri traced the perfect circle that invisibly contained the three angels. Then he traced a cross within the circle and then the triangle it also contained. All this significant geometry reveals the icon’s theology yet none of it is heavy-handed. Then there was the table around with the three figures were placed — the Eucharistic altar with golden chalice. Above the three figures were three objects: a house with an open door, a tree, and a mountain. The doorless building is the Church. The tree is the Tree of Life and also the Life-giving Cross. The mountain is the Mount of the Beatitudes.

Henri also spoke about the history of the icon, how Rublev had painted it as the principal icon for the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity where the body of St. Sergius of Radonezh had been placed. St. Sergius, one of Russia’s most beloved saints, was a monk and woodworker who lived in the 14th Century. He left no writings. The only word that comes down to us from St. Sergius are these: “The contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all enmity.” Through this icon standing a few meters from the burial place of St. Sergius, Rublev sought to provide the opportunity for the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

It may have been from Henri that I first heard the comment of one of the martyrs of the Soviet era, the physicist, mathematician, theologian and priest, Pavel Florensky, who wrote: “Because of the absolute beauty of Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon, we know that God exists.” Henri understood this way of thinking — beauty is a witness to the existence of God. Again and again, he found in works of art doors to heaven: Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, and many of the paintings of Van Gogh.

For Henri the Holy Trinity icon was an icon of “the house of love” — the Church as God intends it to be, the doors of which are never closed and which needs no locks. Henri linked icons with the question: “What do we really choose to see?” It is a matter of enormous importance what we look at and how we look at it. “It makes a great difference,” Henri noted, “whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The ‘powers and principalities’ control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videos, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories. We do not have to be passive victims of a world that wants to entertain and distract us. We can make decisions and choices. A spiritual life in the midst of our energy-draining society requires us to take conscious steps to safeguard that inner space where we can keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord.”

Henri proposed a theology of seeing, or gazing, the verb he preferred. To really see something beautiful, such as a well-painted icon, so that its beauty becomes a sacramental reality, one has to do much more than glance. For Henri, the icon is the primary visual art of the Church — if not the door of the Church, than the window. Nor could icons be divorced from the totality of the Church. The icon becomes a dead plant when it becomes simply a “work of art,” a “collector’s item,” an aesthetic object. For both Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, icons were intimately connected with Eucharistic life and daily prayer.

Like the Bible, the icon is made by the Church and guarded by the Church. The icon is a witness to the truths the Church lives by. Each icon has dogmatic content. For example, any icon of Christ in the arms of his mother remind us that he took flesh in the flesh of her body. Christ’s bare feet seen in the Virgin of Vladimir icon are a reminder that he was fully man, walking on the same earth as we do. Though an infant, he is shown dressed as an emperor, because in reality he rules the cosmos.

While I have concentrated on icons, Henri’s debt to Eastern Orthodox Christianity goes much further. He was one of the relatively few non-Orthodox readers of the Philokalia, an anthology of writings, mainly from patristic sources, whose main topic is the “Prayer of the Heart.” He would occasionally borrow a sentence from one of the authors included in the Philokalia, St. Theophane the Recluse: “Prayer is descending with the mind into your heart, and there standing before the face of the Lord, ever present, all seeing, within you.”

Henri would expound upon this theme in writing:

The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking then through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than talk about them. The choice you face constantly is whether you are taking your wounds to your head or to your heart. In your head you can analyze them, find their causes and consequences, and coin words to speak and write about them. But no final healing is likely to come from that source. You need to let your wounds go down to your heart. Then you can live through them and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds. [The Inner Voice of Love, p. 91]

The Prayer of the Heart is another name for the Jesus Prayer, a short prayer which centers on the name of Jesus and which is very widely used, especially in the Orthodox Church, though gradually it is becoming well known in the West as well. In its most common form, one prays: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The connection between spiritual life and response to others was basic to Henri and the vocational choices he made. Henri was torn between competing vocational attractions — university professor, monk, missionary, or becoming part of a community of hospitality. He fully explored each of these possibilities before finally becoming a member of the L’Arche community at Daybreak near Toronto. Along the way he became a spiritual father and guide to many people.

Henri realized that the icon, far from being merely an artistic image that directs our attention away from the world we live in with all its agonies, is a school of seeing. It helps reshape the way we see and relate to other people. The icon — the Greek word for image — is a reminder that each person, no matter how damaged his life, is a bearer of God’s image and, like those whom we regard as saints, has the capacity to reclaim the lost likeness. But it is one thing to believe intellectually that, each person is made in the image of God, no less than Adam and Eve, and yet another to actively seek that image and to relate to the other in ways that bear witness to that awareness.

In Henri’s life, perhaps the most important event in the last phase of his life was his taking responsibility at Daybreak community for Adam Arnett, a young man of twenty-five who could not speak, suffered frequent epileptic seizures and was utterly dependent on help from others. Adam was a person whom many would regard as a first-class case for abortion or, having managed to be born, an excellent candidate for what is euphemistically called “mercy killing.” It was no easy thing for Henri, far from the world’s most practical or physically well coordinated person, a man who had difficulty frying an egg or operating a washing machine, to center his life on attending to Adam’s numerous practical needs. Yet Adam became both physically and spiritually a person at the center of Henri’s life, one of Henri’s most important teachers.

“His heart, so transparent, reflected for me not only his person but also the heart of the universe and, indeed, the heart of God. After my many years of studying, reflecting and teaching theology, Adam came into my life, and by his life and his heart he announced to me and summarized all I had ever learned.” [Adam, p 38]

Much of the healing that occurred in the final years of Henri’s life was Adam’s gift. Adam became in Henri’s life a living icon.

Henri Nouwen: in essence, an explorer of God’s presence in our world, a discover of icons on wood and in flesh, always trying to open his eyes just a little bit wider, always trying to become just a little less blind.

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands
e-mail: jhforest@cs.com
Jim & Nancy Forest web site: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com
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text as of June 23, 2004; corrected 2 February 2016
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Reflections on Saint Mary, Theotokos

iconographer: Leonid Ouspensky

Lecture given at meeting of the Fellowship of Saints Alban & Sergius, Oxford, England on May 30, 2002.

by Jim Forest

Neither my wife nor I grew up in homes where Mary was revered. My parents were trying hard to be atheists. While not quite succeeding, I don’t recall any reference to Mary. In Nancy’s case, in a strongly Calvinist family, to have a devotion to Mary was, by definition, something Roman Catholic and therefore unthinkable. “One thing that was made very clear to us,” Nancy recalls, “is that whatever Protestants were, we were not Catholics.”

Early in our marriage, Nancy asked if I could “explain” Mary to her. I burst out laughing. How could anyone possibly explain Mary? But I assured her that her question was a prayer and that Mary herself would answer it, which indeed she has done time and again. It wasn’t many years after asking her question that she began to keep a small icon of Mary, “The Mother of God of the Holy Sign,” on her night table.

The chasms left by the Reformation still run between and even through many of us in the west. Ask a person what he thinks of Mary and you quickly learn a great deal about him. But in those countries traditionally Orthodox or Catholic, even if there have been interruptions of religious life or periods of severe repression, one sees that Mary has never been abandoned.

To give one striking example, in 1979 a group of intellectual women in what was then still the Soviet Union started a women’s movement and with it a samizdat journal, Women and Russia. One of the founders was Tatiana Goricheva, a doctoral student of philosophy at the University of Leningrad, who as an adult had found her way to Orthodox belief and been baptized. In fact a similar conversion had happened to all the women in group. Together they created a forum in which women could discuss their lives and problems. Some did this in a dispassionate voice — theoretical, abstract, “objective,” but others, Goricheva recalls, were “howling, weeping, sighing and lamenting” about their torments.

Russian women certainly had much to howl about: the daily battle to live in a society which in so many ways made life nightmarish: a culture of slogans, fear, censorship, repression, chronic alcoholism, ugly apartments in grim high-rise buildings, abortion as the primary method of birth control, etc., etc.

Goricheva wrote how Russian women at that time suffered “twice if not three times as much as men. They work like men, since families cannot get by on one wage. They are plagued by their homes, which in the Soviet Union have nothing attractive about them. One need only add to this … standing in line everywhere, increasing hunger — and the picture of the involuntary martyr will emerge: the picture of the simple Russian woman.” [Tatiana Goricheva, Talking About God is Dangerous; Crossroad, NY, 1987; pp 86 ff]

At this time there were of course women’s groups in every western country publishing journals in which women not only howled and protested but created new rules of discourse complete with a new vocabulary.

What made the women’s group in Russia remarkably different from the countless feminist groups in the west is suggested by the Russian movement’s name: Maria. It was the world’s only feminist group named in honor of the mother of Jesus, and this in a society deeply hostile toward faith and religious terminology.

“We saw,” Goricheva explained, “that social changes would not liberate either men or women unless they were connected with the main thing, with the spiritual revolution which was taking place in every soul and throughout society. We said that women could only be free in the Church.” [Ibid, p 87]

For about a year, the group was tolerated by the KGB. The state security mechanisms hesitated, Goricheva speculates, because of the inevitable protest both from governments and from feminists in the west if Russia’s tiny women’s movement was suppressed and its leaders sent to prison.

But in the summer of 1980, with the Olympic games about to be held in Moscow, the government decided to silence dissident voices in Moscow and Leningrad. The several women leading Maria were given the option of going to prison or being sent into exile in the west. The women, with the blessing of their spiritual fathers, choose exile. On the 20th of July, they were put on an airplane and flown to Vienna.

Among those greeting the Russian women on their arrival were western feminists who were trying to make sense of Russian women who were more interested in the Jesus Prayer than in jobs and money. What kind of feminists were they if they were not at odds with patriarchal religion? They asked such questions as, “Why don’t you want to become priests?” And, “How can you see Mary as a model for women if the example she gives is that of a woman kneeling before a man?”

Nor could they understand or appreciate the answers given by the Russian women: that Russian women have no interest in presiding at the altar, that equality does not mean sameness, that in the Church heaven rubs against the earth for anyone who receives the Eucharist; that this is so is no less true for lay people than for clergy and no less for women than for men; that the servant is more important than the tsar; the cross higher than the throne; the holy fool wiser than the expert.

For her part, Tatiana Goricheva in exile was startled to find that it was not only atheists in the west who had little understanding of Mary or could imagine her as a model, but that even among many Christians, Mary was an embarrassment if not an irritation. She was astonished to find that there was so little awareness of the truth that what is not built within the soul will never take root socially. What we ponder in our hearts is both who we are and what we become. This is one of Mary’s greatest lessons.

Perhaps this small movement of Orthodox women in Russia during the Brezhnev era can help us see Mary more clearly, and at the same time see ourselves in a less distorted mirror.

Let us consider Mary.

It is sometimes objected that Mary is only a small presence in the New Testament, a minor figure hardly worthy mentioning. It’s true that the texts about her, if gathered together, only fill a few pages. But then you must bear in mind that the New Testament is itself a small book, with the Gospels themselves only a hundred pages or so.

Yet it is striking that Mary figures in each of the four Gospels and that we know more about her from the Gospel authors than we know about any of the Apostles, even Peter.

We meet her first at the Annunciation when this young unmarried Jewish maiden of Nazareth is addressed by the Archangel Gabriel, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you,” or, as another translation puts it, “Hail, highly favored one.” In her, we learn immediately, God’s grace and favor are overflowing.

One of the striking aspects in the Gospel account of the Annunciation is the stress on Mary’s freedom. She wasn’t forced to become Christ’s mother. When the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her and told her what God desired, her response was, “Be it done to me according to your word.” No “yes” that was ever spoken has had so much significance. In Mary’s assent, the Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, becomes flesh and forever dwells among us — the defining event in human history. Mary is the person through whom God’s plan for the salvation of the world is set in motion. Among the many liturgical metaphors concerning her, one describes her as a ladder connecting heaven and earth.

Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, in a sermon given in 1874, says of the Feast of Annunciation:

“In the days of the creation of the world, when God was uttering his living and mighty ‘Let there be,’ the word of the Creator brought creatures into the world. But on that day, unprecedented in the history of the world, when Mary uttered her brief and obedient, ‘So be it,’ I hardly dare say what happened then — the word of the creature brought the Creator into the world.” [Cited in The Meaning of Icons, p 172.]

There are nine months in which the Word-made-flesh is in the world but hidden in his mother’s body. This secret presence is the subject of the one of the most beloved icons, “The Mother of God of the Holy Sign,” the title of which refers to the prophecy of Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb and shall bring forth a son, who shall be called Emmanuel.” (Is 7:14) Very early examples can be found on the walls of the catacombs of Rome. Mary is shown in the classical posture of prayer, standing with upraised hands, facing the person praying before the icon; at the same time we can imagine her facing the Archangel Gabriel.

In later iconography, the divine child within her — Christ Emmanuel, “God With Us” — is made visible, vested in golden robes and looking outward while his right hand offers a blessing.

Icons are deeply silent, but none is more charged with silence than this one, a generative silence, a silence vibrantly alive with God’s presence. The monk Thomas Merton was moved to observe:

“And far beneath the movement of this silent cataclysm Mary slept in the infinite tranquility of God, and God was a child curled up who slept in her and her veins were flooded with His wisdom which is night, which is starlight, which is silence. And her whole being was embraced in Him whom she embraced and they became tremendous silence.” [Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1951), p 317.]

The image reminds us of the words of St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” [Galatians 2:20] While Mary is uniquely the Savior’s mother, it is as his faithful disciple that she serves as the primary model of a Christ-centered life. Like Mary, we uncover the secret of who we are in discovering Christ at the center of our lives.

In a society in which abortion has been widely accepted, each icon that reveals Christ within his mother and all Annunciation icons acquire a prophetic significance. The unborn Christ was incarnate and physically present in the world from the moment of his miraculous conception. No wonder one of the earliest prohibitions made by the Church was directed at abortion. Such icons invite us to attain a deeper reverence for life.

During her time of pregnancy, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, long thought barren, but, as Luke relates, a miracle has occurred in her life also. She is now awaiting the birth of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ. At the first moment of their encounter, Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Mary’s response to her cousin is one of our principle hymns:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.

Mary’s hymn reveals her as a daughter of Israel, a true descendant of Abraham, who has a clear understanding of what God is accomplishing. Through her son, the merciful God will disperse the proud, put down the powerful, raise up the lowly and feed the hungry.

The months pass and Mary goes to Bethlehem with her somewhat bewildered husband Joseph, who has married the pregnant Mary despite misgivings, doing so only after accepting angelic advice received in a dream. Here, in the town most closely associated with David, Christ is born in a cave normally used as a place of shelter for animals.

Think of the Nativity icon. It is nothing like a Christmas card. There is no charming Bethlehem bathed in the light of the nativity star but only a rugged mountain side with a few plants: a hard, unwelcoming world in which survival is a real battle, the world since our expulsion from Paradise. Here we meet Christ in a dark, rocky cave, though what happened in the cave is placed by the iconographer before the cave’s entrance. The rigorous black of the cave represents all human disbelief, all fear, all hopelessness. In the midst of a starless night in the cave of our despair, Christ, “the Sun of Truth,” enters history having been clothed in flesh in Mary’s body. “The light shines in the darkness,” dispersing the darkness of the shadow of death over humankind.

As Eve is the “mother of all who live” [ Gen. 3:20], so the Mother of God is recognized as the mother of the new humanity restored and transformed through the incarnation of the Son. Resting on a red mattress — the color of life, the color of blood — Mary is the supreme thanksgiving to God, humanity’s finest offering to their Creator.

“By this offering in the person of the Mother of God,” the iconographer Leonid Ouspensky has written, “fallen mankind gives assent to its salvation through the incarnation of God.” [Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994), p. 159.]

Yet we notice in the icon that hers is not a joyful face. She is living with the mystery of a child with no human father and also the mystery of his future: a ruler, yes, but it is clear from the circumstances of his birth that his way of ruling is in absolute contrast to the way kings rule. The ruler of all rules in meekness from a manger in a cave. His death on the cross is implied in his birth. The cave and the swaddling clothes point ahead to his burial in linen wrappings.

Angels are an essential part of the icon, bringing good news to the shepherds while praising and glorifying God.

Also we often find the wise men making their way toward the stable with gifts, a star revealing the path. A ray extends downward from a sphere at the center of the upper edge of the icon, an indication of the heavenly world penetrating the ordinary.

Below the Virgin, midwives, having assisted Mary, wash the child, a detail based on apocryphal texts concerning Joseph’s arrangements for the birth. They also are a reminder of the midwives who saved the life of the newborn Moses, who under the law of Pharaoh should have been murdered at birth.

We find Joseph crouching in the a corner of the icon, most often to the left. In the guise of an old and bent shepherd, Satan is tempting him. This links with liturgical texts which speak of Joseph’s troubled and doubtful state of mind. He cannot quite believe what he has experienced. Joseph has witnessed that birth, has had his dreams, has heard angelic voices, has been reassured that the child born of Mary is none other than the Awaited One, the Anointed, God’s Son. Still belief comes hard. He cannot comprehend this event which transcends the expected order of the world. “In the person of Joseph,” Ouspensky comments, “the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all mankind — the difficulty of accepting that which is ‘beyond words or reason’ — the incarnation of God.” [Ouspensky and Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, p. 160.] But our eyes travel back to the Virgin, turned towards Joseph, a symbol of compassion for those beset by doubts and the temptations of disbelief.

Far from being a necessary but, in the final analysis, an incidental figure, Mary is placed at the center of the icon. To better understand the theological geography of the icon, consider this text which the Orthodox Church sings on the Feast of the Nativity:

“What shall we offer you, O Christ, who for our sake has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by you offers you thanks. The angels offer you a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer you a virgin mother.” [The Festal Menaion, translated from the Greek by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (London: Faber & Faber, 1969), p 252.]

Mary is the gift of the human race to its creator. Without this gift, there is no incarnation. Through Mary we have Christ. Her flesh becomes his flesh.

We would treasure the name of Mary if only for her role in giving birth to the Savior, for nourishing and raising him, but what is most important finally is that she is the first and best disciple of Christ.

She is not only present at his first public miracle, but has a role in bringing that miracle about. It was at her appeal that Christ changed water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana. We also come to understand that what she said to the servants of the feast — “Do whatever he tells you” [John 2:5] — are her urgent words to anyone who wishes to follow her son.

This point is made even more powerfully in a story Luke tells of an unnamed person who says to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked!” While surely what the man said is true, so far as it goes, what is most important about Mary was not been mentioned. Jesus replies, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” What Mary has done, in bearing and rearing her son, is the result of hearing and keeping the word of God. Indeed he who speaks is that Word. And her steadfast obedience continues day after day ceaselessly. This is why she is most blessed. From an early time Christians referred to her as the Mother of the Church, finding in her a person who in every way provides a perfect model of discipleship. Mary is the first and greatest of saints: a person for whom nothing takes priority over living out God’s will.

Mary was at the foot of the cross when her son was crucified. While dying, Christ called on the Apostle John to take care of her as if John were Mary’s son and Mary was John’s mother.

Again we find her in the icon of Christ’s Ascension. Here Mary stands in the center of the community of believers, the Church.

“The Church never separates Mother and Son, she who was incarnated by him who was incarnate” writes Fr. Sergius Bulgakov. “In adoring the humanity of Christ, we venerate his mother, from whom he received that humanity and who, in her person, represents the whole of humanity.” [Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), pp 116-117.]

From at least the Fourth Century, in the period when the Church was combating heresies that denied that Christ was both true God and true man, Mary came to be known as Theotokos: God bearer, or Mother of God.

One of the earliest non-biblical texts about Mary, written about 90 AD, is found in the Letters of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch: “And the virginity of Mary was hidden from the rulers of this world, as were her giving birth and likewise the death of the Lord — three secrets to be cried out aloud which were accompanied by the silence of God.” Elsewhere he writes of the Lord being born “out of Mary and out of God.” [Paula Bowes, “Mary and the Early Church Fathers,” special issue of Epiphany on Mary the Theotokos (San Francisco: Epiphany Press); Summer 1984, p 46.]

Late in the second century we find St. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon, describing Mary as the new Eve: “Just as Eve, wife of Adam, yet still a virgin … became by her disobedience the cause of death for herself and the whole human race, so Mary, too, espoused yet a virgin, became by her obedience the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race … And so it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by Mary’s obedience.”

For the fourth century poet and hymn writer, St. Ephraim the Syrian, Mary is “your mother, your sister, your spouse, your handmaiden.”

While there are icons of Mary by herself, far more frequently she is shown with Christ, especially Christ as a child.

In some icons, he is still within her body. In others his face is pressed against his mother’s, an action of tender love and a reminder that his body was knit from her flesh. In certain icons she serves as the throne from which Christ reigns.

Though there are countless variations in icons of the Theotokos, in the vast majority we see her gesturing toward her son. This is the action that sums up her entire life to the present day.

We must recall that the Church’s attention to Mary was an integral part of its defense of the Incarnation. For the Gnostics, who sought redemption from the flesh, the flesh of Christ was a problem, for flesh in their view was synonymous with corruption and evil. For them Christ was not born of Mary but descended into Jesus, the son of Mary, at his baptism. Mary, therefore, was of no importance. (Docetism, the most extreme form of the Gnostic heresy, denied that Christ had a truly human body at all; he simply appeared to have flesh.)

For Orthodox Christianity, salvation is of the flesh, not from it, and icons serve both as an affirmation of the Incarnation and of the significance of matter itself. “The title [of Mary as] Theotokos [God-bearer or Mother of God],” wrote St. John of Damascus, “contains the whole mystery of the Incarnation.”

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