“Lord, that I might see”: Henri Nouwen’s Eye for Icons

(for the June 2016 Henri Nouwen conference in Toronto — due to illness I was unable to deliver it)

Henri Nouwen
Henri Nouwen

By Jim Forest

You know the story. A blind man named Bartimaeus encounters Jesus and makes an urgent appeal, “Lord, that I might see.” And Christ grants his wish.

“Lord, that I might see.” So simple, but what a prayer! It’s a prayer for each of us, for which of us can claim not to be blind? Yes, most of us can see. We can admire a painting, take photos, drive a car, even read the small type. But, no matter how eagle-eyed we think we are, there is so much we don’t see. Our eyes are open but most of the time not very widely. How often do we look at another human face and recognize the image of Christ?

One of the remarkable things about Henri Nouwen is how much he saw, how attentively, how thoroughly he saw, how unblind he was.

You probably recall the story of how Henri came to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and, hour after hour, gazed silently at Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son. His attentiveness so impressed the museum staff that Henri was brought a special chair so he could gaze at the painting more comfortably.

Henri developed a similar eye for icons. One of Henri’s achievements is that he played a significant role within Western Christianity in rediscovering and re-appreciating — perhaps we can say re-seeing — icons, the main art form of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, though for well over a thousand years icons were simply the liturgical art, East and West, of the undivided Church

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 describe as icon-like. With his usual immediacy, Henri explains how first one icon — Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon — and then several others — an icon of Mary holding Christ in her arms; an icon of the face of Christ; and a Pentecost icon — gained a place in his life and what he had learned from long periods of attentive living with them.

We are so used to what we think of as more realistic paintings — paintings that are more cinematic, paintings with a single vantage point and a single light source, paintings that we think of as three-dimensional — that icons often seem to many of us like kindergarten drawings. At one time it was the same for Henri. In the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, Henri found doors to heaven, but in the case of icons those doors were locked.

Of course he 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 was staying. “After gazing for many weeks at the icon,” Henri wrote in Behold the Beauty of the Lord, “I felt a deep urge to write down what I had gradually learned to see.”

[screen: Chagall painting]

Marc Chagall Untitled (Still Life with Fruit and Flowers), 1956-1957 Gouache, watercolor, and wax crayons on paper, 705 x 545 Gift of Victor and Anne-Marie Loeb, Bern, Switzerland B02.1630Henri’s sensitivity to the visual arts 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 at a time when Chagall was hardly known — a watercolor of a vase filled with flowers placed on a sunlit window ledge, a simple yet radiant work, one easily recognized as the work of Chagall. (I have no photo of it to share with you but found this somewhat similar nighttime still life.) The painting made one aware not only of color and light and everyday beauty but of God’s silent, radiant life-giving 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 doesn’t surprise me. In fact 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 was never held captive by the rules of perspective or 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 revealing a hidden world charged with the divine presence. 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 the Dutch city of Alkmaar following his first stay at Trosly. He was very excited about the house gift he had brought with him, a print on heavy paper of the Holy Trinity icon. He had purchased it that morning at a religious art shop in Paris. Though he had not yet seen the actual icon — it was in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow — he was confident 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 confess I had taken little more than an academic interest in them. I was aware of Thomas Merton’s enthusiasm for them — he sometimes had sent me icon post cards — but for me this side of Merton had been hidden in a fog bank. It wasn’t until Henri’s visit that finally I began to see them with an excitement similar to his own.

[screen: Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon]2 Holy Trinity icon - Toronto lecture

I vividly recall Nancy and me sitting at Henri’s side as he explored, with childlike fascination, each 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 self-giving love — three young beardless figures, so alike, three and yet in such a state of oneness. Such love. Such submissiveness. Henri spoke of their profound stillness, their deep silence, and yet also their 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 came to Moscow and visited the Tretyakov Gallery.

This icon, Henri reminded us, has its roots in the story told in Genesis in which Abraham and Sarah, under the oak of Mamre, are visited by angels. Their angelic guests are not the Holy Trinity but — in their oneness-threeness — an angelic revelation of the Trinity. Henri traced the perfect circle that invisibly contains 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 which the three figures were placed — no longer just a plank of wood on which Abraham and Sarah ate their simple meals but transformed into the Eucharistic altar with a golden chalice. Above the three figures were three significant objects: a house with a doorless entrance, a tree, and a mountain. The doorless building, Henri said, is the Church, which one may enter without needing a key. The tree is the Tree of Life and also the Life-giving Cross. The mountain bending toward the angels is both Mount Sinai and the Mount of the Beatitudes.

Henri spoke about the history of this 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, woodworker and toy-maker who, in the 14th Century, founded a monastery in the dense forests north of Moscow. He left no writings. The only words that come down to us from St. Sergius are these: “The contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all enmity.” Through this icon, which for centuries was placed a few meters from the entombed body of St. Sergius, Rublev sought to provide an 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 bears witness to the existence of God.

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. All are invited.

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. Gazing was 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. 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, with the Church calendar and its feasts and fasts.

[on screen: Vladimir Mother of God icon]2a Vladimirskaya icon - Toronto lecture

Like the Bible, the icon is a multi-generational creation made by the Church and also guarded by the Church. The icon is a witness to the truths the Church lives by. Each icon has dogmatic content.

For example, as Henri pointed out, any icon of Christ in the arms of his mother reminds us that Jesus took flesh in the flesh of her body. Christ’s bare feet, as seen for example in the Virgin of Vladimir icon, are a reminder that he was fully human, a boy and then a man who walked the same earth that we do. Though shown as an infant in size, he has the proportions of an adult. His clothing is metaphorical — he is dressed as an emperor, a reminder that in reality he rules the cosmos and invites each of us into his kingdom of mercy and love.

[screen: Rublev’s Pantocrator icon]3a Rublev Pantocrator icon - Toronto lecture

It’s quite a different Christ we see in images of the Savior as an adult. Such icons have in common the living memory of Christ’s face as seen by his disciples. Consider the Savior icon done by Rublev, only the face of which survived the iconoclasm of the Soviet period. It was found in a barn and was lucky not to have been used as firewood. As is always the case in icons of Christ, he has brown eyes, long brown hair parted in the center, a closely cropped beard, prominent cheek bones, Semitic features, olive skin, a high forehead. The quiet intensity of his gaze is both startling and challenging. This version of the icon is sometimes described as “Christ the Peacemaker.” It is certainly not a face of condemnation but rather a face of great expectation, a face that challenges. We see Christ’s face, Henri pointed out, as if we had opened a door and found him standing there. It’s remarkably similar to one of the oldest surviving Savior icons, one from the sixth century that is in the safekeeping of the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert.

[screen: Pantocrator icon from of St. Catherine’s Monastery]3b Sinai Pantocrator icon - Toronto lecture

Henri realized that the icon, far from being an artistic image intended to direct our attention away from the world we live in with all its agonies, is a school of active seeing. It helps reshape the way we see and relate to other people. The icon serves as a reminder that each person, no matter how damaged, is a bearer of God’s image and, like those whom we regard as saints, has the capacity to reclaim the lost likeness.

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. How changed we would be, how changed the world would be, if we saw each other as we really are. But, in glancing at each other, we tend to see the frames, not the paintings.

But not Henri.

[screen: contemporary Pantocrator icon]3c Pantocrator icon - Toronto lecture

Perhaps the most important event in the last phase of Henri’s life was his taking responsibility at Daybreak 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. As Henri wrote:

“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]

For Henri, Adam was the man of many needs he was but, at the same time, a living icon of Christ.

[screen: Chora Anastasis icon]4 Anastasis icon - Toronto lecture

Speaking of Adam, let’s end with an icon in which both Adam and Eve are portrayed. It’s an image especially linked with Easter — the harrowing of hell. Having died on the Cross, a triumphant and radiant Christ takes charge of the kingdom of death, overthrowing its governor, Satan, binding him in chains and then letting him fall with all his locks and keys into the abyss, while raising the righteous ancestors, first of all Adam and Eve, from their tombs. Amazing! Adam and Eve, the original troublemakers, the refugees from Eden, are the first objects of Christ’s infinite mercy.

The message? There is hope for each of us.

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