Praying with Icons: Integrating Body and Soul

Icons and the Mysteries: Meeting God in the Material World — second lecture

I finished yesterday’s lecture by noting that beauty itself bears witness to God. Beauty is very important to us — it motivates many choices and plays a major role in our search for heaven — yet it’s not an easy word to define. We look at certain people and remark how beautiful they are. More significantly, when we look at anyone we love, we see beauty there even if others fail to see that beauty. The beauty we are privileged to glimpse in another person is the image of God — the icon — in the other. As we advance in the life of grace, we see the icon of God in more and more people and this increasingly influences the way we respond to them.

We tend to carry photos of those whom we love. Such photos are beautiful to us. It would greatly distress us if someone where to destroy those photos. It might seem to us a form of iconoclasm.

We recognize beauty in works of art. Beauty draws us to visit museums of art and also hang pictures on the walls of our homes — pictures that are, because of their beauty, spiritually refreshing.

We make it a point to visit places where the beauty of God’s creation is unspoiled by less fortunate activities of human beings. Alaska pulls in many thousands of visitors every year who are here to see a kind of beauty that’s not easily found in more crowded — more “developed” — parts of the planet.

We know beauty when we see it yet who can describe beauty in words? In the case of icons, I find it impossible to define in words what makes a good and beautiful icon. It becomes still more difficult to draw the border between good iconography and that which is second-rate or simply bad — for, just as there can easily be bad Bible translations, there can be badly made icons. An icon is not beautiful simply because it’s an icon, no more than a particular apple is good to eat simply because it grew on an apple tree.

Nonetheless certain general comments about what to look for in iconography may be helpful to those who are new to icons or want to develop a deeper appreciation of them.

Perhaps a good place to start is to point out that, no less than the written word, an icon is an instrument for the transmission of Christian tradition. Tradition is such an important word. It comes from a Latin word, traditio, which means the handing over of something from one person to the next, not only the handing on of an object but also of information, instruction or doctrine. It could be a gold coin or it could be words of wisdom. Why do we do certain things, Tevia asks in “Fiddler on the Roof.” He answers with the single word, “Tradition!”

One of my favorite examples of tradition is bread baking. Perhaps it is possible to learn bread baking from a book but the main way the tradition survives is through apprenticeship. One person teaches another — a master teaches a novice. Mainly it is teaching by doing. How to add the leaven. How to know the moment when the bread is ready to be kneaded. How to kneed the dough, what it should feel like, how to keep it from sticking. All the thousand and one details, many of which cannot be put in words but only can be shown or felt. Gradually the apprentice becomes a skilled bread baker. Her teacher says, in effect, “Axios!” She is worthy. But she will never bake a loaf of bread with only her own hands. All the bread that will ever come from her hands also contains the hands of her teacher, whose hands in turn contain the hands of her teacher, back and back until at last we touch the hands of There is an apostolic succession of bread bakers as well as of bishops.

It’s like that with iconography. Just as the hands of many thousands of bakers, and centuries of bakers, stand behind each loaf of bread, the icon is more than the personal meditation of an individual artist or the work of only one person’s hands. Each icon is the fruit of many generations of believers, a chain of continuity uniting us to the actual witnesses of the resurrection. Through traditional sacred imagery, the Holy Spirit speaks to us, revealing truths that may not be evident to those using only the tools of word and reason.

Let me give an example. Here is a very famous icon, sometimes called simply the Vladimirskaya, or more formally the Mother of God of Vladimir. It is one of several icons which, according to tradition, was painted by the Evangelist Luke, who is regarded as the first iconographer. We live in a skeptical time in which inevitably the question is raised: Is it really the work of Luke? The answer is I don’t know but it wouldn’t surprise me. If we get to heaven, we can ask Luke. Perhaps it will turn out to be an ancient copy of an icon he painted which was lost in the age of iconoclasm — or perhaps not. Meanwhile you will excuse the Russians for believing this is one of the original icons, a treasure handed down from the first generation of believers to our own generation.

What we know for certain is that the icon was given by the Church in Constantinople to the young Russian Church in about 1131. It was no small gift. Every movement and use of the Vladimir icon has been chronicled ever since. Among the people of Rus’, it was first in Kiev, the city through which Christianity entered Russia in the tenth century. There was a mass baptism in Kiev in 988, when St Vladimir was ruler of Kiev. It remained in Kiev until that city was attacked by the Golden Horde. Following Kiev’s destruction, in 1155 it was carried to the city of Vladimir in the north, which became the center of Russia for two centuries. In 1395 the icon moved once again, this time to Moscow, a river town which by then had grown into the principal city of Russia.

As you can see even from a photo, it’s not an icon that has always lived a sheltered life. It has seen many wars, much suffering. Before this icon rivers of people have prayed from the depths of their hearts. It is an icon associated with many miracles.

There are many good printed reproductions of the Vladimir icon but none I have seen does justice to the original. Partly this is because the surface of the icon, having suffered much damage down through the centuries, reveals level upon level of the overpainting of those who restored it. Restoration used to mean painting a similar icon over an older one when it was too dark to see. We see portions of earlier painting in one area, later retouching in others. The rough terrain of the icon’s surface is lost in prints.

The Vladimirskaya lives a sheltered life these days. At present it is placed within an enclosure of bulletproof glass in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Yet it has had at least one outing in recent years. In a moment of national crisis in 1993, when the head of the country, Gorbachev, was put under arrest by the organizers of an attempted coup, the icon was carried out of the museum by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexis, and used to bless the city and nation — precisely the kind of action long associated with this icon, the national icon of Russia.

Even in the museum, it is normal to see people in fervent prayer as they stand before this battered image. Many people come to them museum for no other reason than to pray in front of the Vladimirskaya. Even before the museum doors open, the staff has placed fresh flowers on the floor in front of the icon.

Notice in the icon how Christ’s attention is directed to his mother. There is also the detail of Christ’s bare feet, a vivid symbol of his physical reality: he walked among us, leaving his footprints on the earth.

Christ’s face is pressed against his mother’s, his arm is around his mother’s neck. We are reminded that his flesh has its origin in her flesh. It was in her body that He who was bodiless became man. The icon emphasizes the unity of mother and child and the love that binds them.

In contrast to Renaissance religious paintings with a similar subject, we notice in the icon that while Christ is a child in size, his body’s proportions are those of a man. A child’s head would be much larger. This is intentional. The timeless and noble face we see pressed against Mary’s face is revealed to be the Lord of Creation and the Glory of God. He wears adult clothing, an imperial tunic and coat woven from gold, the element iconography uses for the imperishable and all that is associated with the Kingdom of God. In these details the icon reveals the real identity of the son of Mary.

Over her dress, Mary wears a dark shawl which circles her head, has a golden border, and is ornamented with three stars — though one star is hidden by Christ’s body. The stars symbolize her virginity before and after her son’s birth. At the same time they suggest that heaven has found a place in her.

The icon’s triangular composition not only emphasizes the stillness of the two figures and gives the icon an immovable solidity but is a reminder of the presence of the Holy Trinity in all things.

The center of the composition is at the level of Mary’s heart. A much used Orthodox prayer declares, “Beneath your tenderness of heart do we take refuge, O Mother of God.” As anyone discovers in coming to know the Mother of God, her heart is as spacious as heaven.

There are many sightly different versions of this icon, all icons that can be called the Mother of God of Tenderness. The Vladimir icon is only the most famous example. In all of them we see Mary’s perfect devotion, a devotion so absolute that God finds in her the person who can both give birth to himself and who will ever after serve as the primary model of Christ-centered wholeness — the woman whom all generations will regard as blessed. In her assent to the angelic invitation, Mary said not only on behalf of herself and all her righteous ancestors but for all generations, “Yes, Lord, come!” Through her all humanity gives birth to Jesus Christ, and through Christ she becomes our mother.

Because all such icons portray the profound oneness uniting Mary and Jesus, they are a eucharistic icons: they remind us that, in receiving the Body of Christ, we too hold Christ, and are held by Christ.

In the Gospel, an anonymous voice praises Mary for having given birth to Jesus and having nursed him. Christ responds by remarking on what is still more important about his mother and all who follow him wholeheartedly: “Rather blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” She who gave birth to the Word of God also keeps it eternally. She was his first and best disciple.

It was at Mary’s appeal that Christ performed his first miracle, changing water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana, and at Cana that we hear her simple appeal to each person who would follow her son: “Do whatever he tells you.” These few words would serve well as another name for icons of this type.

All icons of this type tell us a lot about living tradition. No two are identical yet all offer a similar composition, all communicate a similar message. All create a place of prayer, whether in church or at home or wherever we happen to place such an icon.

On to a second point, a point which has already been suggested by the icons we have been looking at: Icons are an aid to worship, and such worship involves both body and soul. No icon is meant simply to be decorative or an item for a collection. An icon is intended to help us believe and help us pray. Wherever an icon is set, that place tends to become 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,” the French theologian Paul Evdokimov comments, “is the last arrow of human eros shot at the heart of the mystery.”

Consider this photo of a child-carrying woman about to kiss an icon. It’s the Tikhvin icon on the Mother of God, another of the several icons thought to have been painted by the Evangelist Luke. In recent weeks it has been returned to Russia after a 55-year sojourn in the United States. In the photo we are witnessing a moment of intimate veneration but nothing in the least uncommon in an Orthodox environment. Orthodox Christians do this countless times every year. It’s as natural as breathing. The physical action mirrors a spiritual action. In that moment we are somehow aware of the unseen but living presence of the person represented in the icon. The kisses are given to an icon as letters are placed in a postbox. The postbox is not the destination — it is a gateway. The icon too is a gateway. The kisses given are not for the paint or wood, or the varnish or glass that cover the icon, but are destined for Christ or his mother or whichever saint whose image we are venerating.

We live in a culture which has to a considerable extent cut us into pieces. Home and work place are often divided: the family farm or the family trade are, for most people, long gone. Still more important, we live in a society in which the separation of the spiritual and the physical is normal.

But religious life is not all in the head. God made us physical beings and well as spiritual. The two are bound together — a unity of body and soul that God intends to be seamless. What we call the spiritual life is equally the physical life. A typical example is embracing the Cross spiritually while at the same time marking our body with the sign of the cross: a hidden action combined with a visible action. Without the inner action, the outer action is incomplete. The physical action, however, can be a powerful aid to achieving the inner action.

I recall being at a Liturgy in Moscow twenty years ago. It was still the Communist period. This was one of only 47 “working” churches in the huge city of Moscow in those days. It was a time when services were mainly attended by older women — they had the least to lose. On this occasion I was with a Swedish friend who belonged to a physically undemonstrative church in which there were few if any gestures made by the body in connection with worship. Margareta was both tall and colorfully dressed. In a church largely populated by relatively short Russian women in plain clothing, she certainly stood out. But even more striking to the Russian women around her was the fact that she stood so still and never made the sign of the cross. Finally a babushka standing next to Margareta simply guided Margareta’s hand as if she were her granddaughter, showing her how to make a cross on her body, touching her forehand, her belly, her right shoulder and her left shoulder. For the rest of the service Margareta regularly made the sign of the cross. I realized I was witnessing a small healing miracle — a paralytic being raised from immobility. I think Margareta wanted to do this from the moment she entered the church — it is such a simple and compelling and potent action — but the habits of a lifetime stood in the way. She was too embarrassed. It took the confident hand of a Russian babushka to reconnect Margareta’s spiritual and physical life. Had the babushka had the opportunity, I have no doubt she would have helped Margareta kiss icons instead of just looking at them as if they were paintings in a museum.

I recall another experience involving another Protestant friend, Hannes de Graaf, who taught for many years at the University of Utrecht. As a young man his interest in the novels of Dostoevsky led him to learn Russian, a language which he put to good use later in life, during the Cold War, when he would occasionally travel to Russia to make contact with Christians.

One day he was in an Orthodox Church in Moscow, quite possibly the same Epiphany Cathedral, standing in front of an icon when an old Russian woman approached him. She could see at a glance that Hannes was a foreigner. Few Russians could afford such clothing. And she could see he wasn’t Orthodox — he hadn’t crossed himself, he hadn’t kissed the icon. He was looking at it as one might look at a painting in a museum. “Where do you come from?” she asked. “Holland,” Hannes replied. “Oh yes, Holland. And are there believers in Holland?” “Yes, most people in Holland belong to a church.” But he could see the doubt in her face.

She began to cross-examine him. “And you also are a believer?” “Yes, in fact I teach theology at the university.” “And people in Holland, they go to church on Sunday?” “Yes, most people go to church. We have churches in every town and village.” “And they believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?” She crossed herself as she said the words. “Oh yes,” Hannes assured her, but the doubt in her face increased — why had he not crossed himself? Then she looked at the icon and asked, “And do you love the Mother of God?” Now Hannes was at a loss and stood for a moment in silence. Good Calvinist that he was, he could hardly say yes. Then he said, “I have great respect for her.” “Such a pity,” she replied in a pained voice, “but I will pray for you.” Immediately she crossed herself, kissed the icon and stood before it in prayer.

“Do you know,” Hannes told me years later, “from that day I have loved the Mother of God.”

Another aspect of icons is that they have a hieratic character. Hieratic — a word few of us use in the average day. Hieratic means something 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 consciousness of the divine presence. The icon is theology written in images and color.

Consider this icon by St. Andre Rublev. It is a Pantocrator icon. Much of the image has been lost — damage suffered in the early years of the Communist revolution — but in the center the face survives. It is a kind of miracle. The icon, having been taken from the iconostasis of a monastery, was later found being used as a step in a barn. Now it is among the treasures in the care of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Look at the face of Christ. We see how the iconographer has sought to convey the awesomeness of the invisible and divine reality and to lead the viewer to an awareness of the divine presence. This is certainly a man but more than any man we have yet met. He looks at each of us with absolute knowing, and also with absolute care. It is the face of the God who made us in his image, the God who is the source of all love. It is not a soft love but a love that demands great things of us, a love that awaits our conversion, a love that invites us to live our lives in the kingdom of God, and to do so not later on but today, this very hour. We cannot look at this icon and be unaware of God. The icon makes us think of ourselves in relationship to God.

Icons of the face of Christ vary a good deal. In some cases it tends to be more severe, as in this example from Hagia Sophia in Istanbul — a powerful reminder that we will, each of us and all of us, participate in the Last Judgment. We will be judged for what we did and what we failed to do. We will hear him say, “What you have failed to do to the least person you have failed to do to me.”

A third point: Icons guard against over-familiarity with the divine. For example, a Savior icon is not merely a sentimental painting but portrays both his divinity as well as his manhood, his absolute demands on us as well as his infinite mercy.

Here is a recently painted Pantocrator icon by a Bulgarian. This is definitely not “our dear friend Jesus” but someone who challenges all who meet him to live in a way that reveals the kingdom of God.

This may help us understand why no one is smiling in an icon. A cross-cultural history of smiles would make an interesting book. We Americans regard especially smiles as close to obligatory. The absence of a smile makes us worry that something is wrong: depression, illness, grief. A contender for the White House must be able to flash a bright smile at the blink of an eye. In some cultures it’s very different. I recall when I was first traveling in Russia in the early eighties being surprised that portrait photos displayed in windows of photo studio windows never, I mean never, showed anyone smiling. At first it seemed to me this revealed Russians were just as unhappy as Americans imagined. Later I discovered Russians were baffled and somewhat alarmed that Americans smile so much — for them smiles in photos are at odds with the solemnity that standing before a camera requires. This is a small example of very different cultural attitudes. I’m not sure which culture has the larger share of wisdom.

In icons the basic idea is to show a person transfigured by Christ. This is a blessedness beyond happiness. It’s something like standing before God. It doesn’t mean that sanctity is at odds with joy but that the joy involved is beyond smiles.

Icons also serve to summon the person who stands before them to enter completely into life in Christ, to take up Christ’s cross and to die to self and to the world — in the shallow sense of the word: the world as a place with no link to heaven — in order to enter into Paschal life.

A fourth point: Icons are not intended to force an emotional response. Here is one of the major differences with later forms of religious art. In icons 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 suggest virtues — purity, patience in suffering, forgiveness, compassion and love. For example, in crucifixion icons, the physical pain Christ endured on the cross is not shown; the icon reveals instead what led him to the cross, the free action of giving his life for others. There is no superficial or exaggerated drama. There is also understatement regarding the people standing at either side of the Cross. It isn’t that we are not supposed to be aware of the pain Christ endures for our sake, or the grief his mother and disciples experienced. In some instances — for example this Byzantine icon that was already centuries old when St Francis prayed in front of it in the ruins of a chapel in Assisi– it seems as if Christ, though bleeding, is resting on the Cross. Such an icon emphasizes Christ’s free gift of himself “for the life of the world.”

A fifth point: The icon is silent. No mouths are open nor are there any other physical details which suggest sound. But the silence is not empty. St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, the disciple of St. John the Evangelist who was devoured by lions in Rome in the year 107, made the comment: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.” The stillness and silence of the icon, in the home no less than church, creates 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 sixth point concerns the flatness of icons and inverse perspective. Icons avoid artistic techniques intended to create an illusion of three-dimensional space. The icon suggests space without attempting to escape the two-dimensional plane of the panel. Even slight violations of this two-dimensionality damage the icon’s meaning, just as a spoken word violates pantomime. The lighting of an icon is never explained by a single light source; light is within the image as well as exterior to it and illumines whoever stands before the icon. The image is reduced to a minimum of detail.

This Annunciation is a good example. It comes from the iconostasis of one of the cathedrals within the Moscow kremlin. We see the most essential elements and nothing more. Mary to the right, the Archangel Gabriel to the left. To suggest that Michael is a bodiless being, he is shown standing on his toes or perhaps floating. Angel comes from the Greek word angelos, messenger. As God’s messenger, he goes instantly wherever he is sent by God. His quickness to go at once wherever he is sent is symbolized by wings. In the icon, Mary has already said, “Be it done to me according to your word.” Already the Word has become flesh — revealed within her body is the unborn Christ. There is also the small detail of Mary holding a blood-red skein of yarn: by assenting to bear Christ, she is weaving our Salvation. It is an astonishingly simple icon. There is either nothing at all in the background, as in this case, or, if a setting is required, as in this icon of the wedding at Cana, it is rendered in the simplest, most austere manner. “Inverse perspective” is used. There is no single vanishing point. Objects 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. The vanishing point is not in illusory space behind the image but rather the viewer’s own heart.

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, even abstract, manner. It is only in modern times that artists like Chagall have begun to rediscover the value of icons in ignoring rules of perspective and figures that defy gravity. Thus Chagall is able to show in this painting something about the nature of marital love that could not be revealed with such immediacy in a realistic painting of a husband and wife together in their kitchen. But then Chagall, though Jewish, grew up in a world of icons — a Ukranian town.

“Spiritual reality cannot be represented in any other way except through symbols,” commented the iconographer Leonid Ouspensky. Thus persons may be shown smaller or larger due only to reasons of their condition. In a Dormition icon, for example, the roles are reversed: it is no longer large Mary holding small Jesus but the other way around. Mary appears twice in the icon — her falling asleep in death in the foreground, then in the background herself but baby-sized in the hands of Christ.

On the subject Ouspensky writes: “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.” [The Meaning of Icons]

A seventh point: The icon should be unsigned. Sadly there are iconographers who violate the rule, but traditionally an icon is not a work of self-advertisement. This is an example of the icon called “Unmade by Human Hands.” It represents an image that resulted when Christ pressed his face against a linen cloth when King Abgar in Edessa appealed for Christ’s help. The cloth eventually went to Constantinople but was stolen and lost when Latin Crusaders took the city but countless icons inspired by the original cloth have come down to us. There is no signature nor even the iconographer’s initials. And here is one of the countless versions of the Icon of the Sign, which takes its name from a prophecy of Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. A virgin will conceive and bear a son and shall call him Immanuel.” It is a masterpiece yet unsigned. The iconographer was interested in nothing more than drawing our attention to the mystery of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity becoming human. An unborn child, invisible to the world but made visible in the icon, riles the universe from his mother’s womb.

The iconographer even 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. Similarly the icon painter does not use iconography to promote an ideology or a personal opinion. The iconographer, having been blessed by the church to carry on this form of non-verbal theological activity, willingly works under guidance of Church canons, tradition and the hierarchy.

On the other hand, iconography is not merely the slavish copying of work done by others, trying to reproduce in every detail the work of an earlier iconographer. “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.”

A seventh point: The icon is an act of witness. As Thomas Merton explained to a correspondent belonging to a Quaker friend, whose church avoids 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.”

An eight and final point that connects with the last: icons are a revelation of transfiguration. We were made in the image and likeness of God but the image has been damaged and the likeness lost. Since Adam and Eve, only in Jesus Christ were these attributes fully intact. In every icon of every saint, each icon attempts to show 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 whomever, as the Orthodox say, has “acquired the Holy Spirit.” The icon is thus a witness to theosis — that is deification. As St Athanasius wrote: “God became human so that the human being could become God.”

Theology Without Words: Understanding the Language of Icons

Icons and the Mysteries: Meeting God in the Material World — first lecture

I am one of those people who came to appreciate icons only very slowly. When I was a young man, I saw them as the primitive art of Christianity, sometimes as charming as children’s art but the kind of thing better attached with magnets to the refrigerator than framed and hung in the living room. Their claim to a place in museums was chiefly to mark a starting point.

Let me briefly list the objections I had to icons. I found them flat. The perspective and often the proportions were all wrong. There was no “there” in icons, only “here.” The figures in them were so still they seemed lifeless and paralyzed. The saints depicted seemed more or less the same, interchangeable people from heaven’s Central Casting Bureau. Far from smiling, the saints as revealed by icons seemed rather grim if not irate. The objects depicted weren’t realistic. Sometimes I was reminded of the art of Egyptian temples and tombs — monumental and intriguing but lacking all intimacy.

I was like a child trying to understand a foreign language. The problem was that I was looking at Byzantine art with a yard stick provided by art of the post-schism West, especially the art I met in the halls of museums like the Metropolitan in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid. “Real” art was Rembrandt, Vermeer, Da Vinci, Botticelli, etcetera.

It was a long and complex process learning to see icons for what they are rather than what they are not.

One of the many steps along the way occurred about thirty years ago, while I was staying with friends in Birmingham, England. My host was the president of one of the city’s universities. Between lectures, I had time to visit the Barber Institute, a museum with a collection of masterpieces arranged in chronological order. Item number one was a Byzantine icon that was approximately eight centuries old. It was an image of one of the martyrs of the early church. I can no longer be certain who was represented in the icon but it may have been the Holy Great-martyr and Healer Panteleimon, a physician of Christ-like compassion and generosity, healing many through his prayers as well as his medicines, offering his services to the poor without hesitation or fee. His parents had named him Pantoleon (“in all things like a lion”), but because of his compassion he became known as Panteleimon (“all- merciful”). Arrested for his faith, after many tortures he was beheaded in 305. He is counted as the foremost of the Unmercenary Healers.

But whether or not it was Panteleimon, I cannot be certain. All I am sure of is that it was a young man. If ever I get back to Birmingham I will take a second look. The background was entirely gold leaf. The colors in the figure were intense: strawberry red, grass green, sky blue, a white like old ivory, burgundy purple. The gentle eyes of the young saint stared out of the panel toward me, neither condemning nor applauding. The icon was placed in a dark case very softly lit. The lighting was more appropriate than is often the case in museums, illumination that approximated candlelight, in other words something close to the minimal lighting — usually candle light — that the iconographer anticipates.

I still can feel the surprise that swept over me as I was drawn into that icon’s huge and magnetic silence. I eagerly looked forward to seeing other paintings I knew were in the gallery — Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Degas, Monet, etc. — but it was hard to go one step further. The most remarkable thing was that the icon made me want to pray. I don’t recall that ever happening to me before in a museum.

And here we come to point one regarding icons: it is an art that is intended to inspire prayer.

I had stood in front of many amazing paintings by the great masters of the Renaissance and been inspired and stunned by the beauty, the skill, the exploration of the human being both in body and soul, and — in the case of art with a religious theme — the insight into moments of biblical history. I owe a huge debt to such paintings. The best of them gave an extra dimension to reading the Bible. They helped me to see more deeply, to read a text with another level of perception. They refreshed by eyes and heart. Insofar as such painting brought one to a state of contemplation of the divine, they had a sacramental significance. Yet it never crossed my mind to pray.

One of my favorite examples of the kind of painting I am talking about is Vermeer’s study of Jesus with Mary and Martha. This is among the high points of Dutch art from the Golden Age.

It’s a profound reflection on both Mary and Martha’s loving relationship with Christ. At the top is practical, sensible Martha — Martha of the kitchen, Martha of the bread basket — who expresses her love for Jesus through acts of hospitality, not the least of which is preparing a meal for one’s guests, as Abraham and Sara had done under the oak of Mamre when angels visited them. In the foreground is Mary — Mary who avidly attends Christ’s every word. She is so eager to hear whatever Jesus has to say that everything else — all that is normal in life — is momentarily on hold. Martha is understandably annoyed — she has been left to care for their guest’s hunger while Mary feasts on the words of the master. In Vermeer’s painting, both of their faces are turned toward Jesus. His divinity is suggested chiefly by qualities in his face, though there is also the faintest sense of radiance. You recall the story. A moment before Martha had appealed to Jesus to rebuke her sister for forcing Martha to serve alone. We see them at the moment when Christ is responding, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

It’s a wonderful painting. The one time I saw the original — at a Vermeer exhibition in The Hague a few years ago — I stood for the longest time gazing at it. I could hardly breathe. Hundreds of people must have passed in and out of the room where this painting hung without my moving an inch. They were for me only a transparent blur.

Nothing had ever brought me so close to that episode in the Gospel or made it so plain to me that Jesus addressed Martha not with irritation but with the utmost gentleness and respect. In their encounter we get a glimpse of what comes later, when their brother Lazarus has died and been buried. Then the sisters trade places. Mary no longer wishes to be at the feet of Jesus — he has failed her by arriving too late to keep Lazarus from the grave. It is Martha, not Mary, who receives Jesus at the edge of Bethany. She too is disappointed with his late arrival, in fact calls him to account for being too late. It’s in that meeting that Jesus asks if Martha believes in the resurrection of the dead, and when she says she does, responds by telling her, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” It’s only after this exchange that Jesus ask Martha to get Mary — Mary who so far has avoided seeing him. Now it is Martha who has chosen the better part. Only after the two sisters are with him does he raise Lazarus from his grave.

The Vermeer painting, though its focus is on a brief moment in the Gospel, reveals something about who Christ is. We see not only his love and respect for these two sisters with their wildly contrasting temperaments, but for women as a whole. They are as important to him as men even though he is living in a world in which women were only very rarely allowed to be students or thought of having the capacity to sit at a teacher’s feet. Vermeer’s painting is a meditation on Christ’s respect for all women.

In fact it’s a painting not far removed from iconography. There is an icon-like quality of silence and stillness in the painting. Also nothing in the environment surrounding the figures distracts from the three people and what is occurring between them.

Though it isn’t an icon, Vermeer’s painting helps us read and better understand the Gospel. In talking about the language of icons, I don’t wish to be understood as comparing western religious art, such as Vermeer’s, with iconography, and finding the former as somehow less important. They are simply different. These different kinds of paintings play different roles in our spiritual lives, but the roles are complementary. We don’t need to denigrate one in order to value the other. In different ways each opens a door. Perhaps the door opened by the best western religious painting is the door of a more profound understanding of a moment in biblical history, a kind of visual meditation, usually shown in a relatively “realistic” way, while icons, a more abstract form art, challenge us to be aware of the divine presence and invite us to pray.

What are the obstacles to understanding the language of icons?

For many people, one of the obstacles is theological. Ideas that in the past have caused waves of icon destruction are still linger within many of us. Not infrequently during the past twenty centuries, any form of visual presentation of God and the kingdom of heaven has been a matter of boiling controversy among devout Christians, and that controversy is far from over. There are people here who were not raised in the Orthodox Church and can recall what a hard struggle it was coming to terms with icons. They know from the inside the attitudes that fueled intellectual opposition to icons and inspired their destruction — icons seen as idols, icons as an abomination.

The most frequently heard argument of iconoclasts is that icons are a violation of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:3-6) Or in the same chapter of Exodus: “You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” Then three chapters later: “You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their works, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces.” (Exodus 23:24)

There are numerous passages in the Old Testament warning the faithful about false gods, the danger of graven images, the worship of idols, etc.

There have been others whose critique of icons arose from gnostic heresies, especially the belief that all matter exists in the realm of corruption and tends to draw us toward evil. Such people opposed not only icons but sacraments. There were gnostics who believed that, because of what they regarded as the unbridgeable abyss between God and matter, the Son of God could not possibly have become flesh. This led to the belief that Jesus Christ was either an ordinary human being who had been adopted by God or was a bodiless spirit who only seemed to be human of flesh and blood. Thus he did not die on the cross — a spirit cannot die. (Never imagine that the early Church enjoyed a degree of harmony and oneness that has since been lost. Most of today’s heresies are nearly as old as the Orthodox Church.)

In the eighth century, the first iconoclast emperor, Leo III, ordered the destruction of icons or at least their being covered with paint or plaster. The rapid spread of Islam in the east in areas that had previously been Christian may have been a factor in the imperial condemnation of icons — though according to another theory, iconoclasm was an idea absorbed by Islam from Christian heretics. Because of monastic resistance to the emperor’s command, many monasteries were closed. Iconographers were arrested and tortured. Some had a hand cut off. Some were tortured to death.

To get an idea of what a church might have been made to look like in order to please the iconoclast emperors, a church to visit would be Hagia Eirene in what was formerly Constantinople and is today Istanbul. After the city’s oldest church was gutted by fire after a calamitous riot, the present church was rebuilt in the time of Justinian the Great. Would that we could see its iconography, but all the original imagery of Justinian’s church was either destroyed by the iconoclasts or is hidden under plaster. The only surviving decoration from the iconoclast period is a large mosaic cross over the sanctuary. It is not very different in principle than many Protestant churches descending from another period of iconoclasm, the Reformation. fhaigaeirene.jpg(By the way, Hagia Eirene is one of Istanbul’s very few churches that was never turned into a mosque. During the period of Ottoman rule, the church — which stands just inside the walls of the royal palace — served as an armory. Now it is occasionally opened for use as a concert hall. Normally it is not open to tourists and pilgrims, but we managed to get in by making a small donation to the guard.)
St John of Damascus

Ironically it was within the borders of Islam that icons found their best defender, the theologian and hymnographer, St John of Damascus.

Because he was living in a desert monastery near Bethlehem in a period when the Holy Land was under Moslem rule, imperial decrees from Constantinople had no effect. This is the reason the ancient icons at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert, some of them 1500 years old or more, have survived into our own time.

At the heart of St. John’s several essays on divine images is this argument:

How could the invisible be depicted? How could the unimaginable be portrayed? How could one without measure or size or limit be drawn? How could the formless be made? How could the bodiless be depicted in color? What therefore is this that is revealed in riddles? For it is clear that when you see the bodiless become human for your sake, then you may accomplish the figure of a human form; when the invisible becomes visible in human flesh, then you may depict the likeness of something seen; when one who, by transcending his own nature, is bodiless, formless, incommensurable, without magnitude or size, that is, one who is in the form of God, taking the form of a slave, by this reduction to quantity and magnitude puts on the characteristics of a body, depicts him on a board and sets up to view the One who has accepted to be seen.

[treatise one, paragraph eight, translation by Andrew Louth from Three Treatises on the Divine Images, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003]

Here you see in paint — actually in this case pigment in wax — the One who desired to be seen. It’s the kind of icon of Christ that would have been familiar to St John of Damascus. Compared to icons of Christ from later times, it is almost photographic, though there is an amazing continuity of images century after century. Yet even in this very realistic style, the iconographer has managed to convey the mystery that Jesus Christ is both divine and human: Son of God and Son of Man. Such an image of Christ is called the Pantocrator: Ruler of All, Lord of Creation, King of Glory. In the Pantocrator icon we see the face of Jesus Christ, but we see more than would have been shown on film had cameras existed 2,000 years ago. It reveals who he really was. We are face to face with the Jesus Christ, Son of Mary, Son of God, our Savior, God incarnate, whose touch or word could heal the blind, raise the dead and drive out demons.

St John of Damascus stresses that such images are not idols. An icon is an image to be venerated, not worshiped. He wrote at length on the distinction between worship and veneration, giving many biblical examples. His crucial point is that it is not matter which is venerated but rather, as he put it, “the fashioner of matter, who became matter for our sakes.”

St. John’s writings gave courage to those within the empire’s borders who sought to preserve the tradition of icons no matter what the peril or penalty. He also solemnly warned those who obey man rather than God that they put their souls in grave peril:

Let everyone know… that anyone who attempts to destroy an image brought into being out of divine longing and zeal for the glory and memorial of Christ, or of his mother the holy Theotokos, or of one of the saints, or for the disgrace of the devil and the defeat of him and his demons, and will not venerate or honor or greet it as a precious image… is an enemy of Christ…

[ibid., treatise two, paragraph eleven]

He goes to remind his readers that the Emperor is not ruler of the Church:

It is not for emperors to legislate for the Church. For look what the divine apostle says: ‘And God has appointed in the Church first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints,’ — he did not say emperors…

[op. cit., treatise two, paragraph twelve]

The first period of iconoclasm lasted from 711 until 780. There was a recess and then a second wave of iconoclasm, less severe than the first, initiated by Emperor Leo V in 813. Orthodox resistance steadily grew, ultimately including a courageous 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, who herself possessed and venerated icons, convened a Council which reaffirmed the teaching of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and confirmed the place of the icon in Christian life. The first Sunday of Great Lent was set aside henceforth to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, a custom maintained to the present day throughout the Orthodox world when many of the faithful bring their icons from their homes to the church.

By the way, it was not only in Christian enclaves in the Moslem east that icons survived but also in the west. If you wish to see some of the finest icons of the early Church, go to Rome. A first stop might be the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The mosaic icons that adorn the upper walls of the nave date from the mid-fourth century while the large mosaic icons behind the altar are from the fifth century. Many Roman churches are adorned with icons from the early centuries of Christianity. Even older icons survive underground, in the Roman Catacombs.

One of those who was bravest in resisting the iconoclasm was Pope Gregory II, patriarch of Rome from 713 to 731. In common with Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, he resisted the commands of the emperor. When Gregory received a letter from Emperor Leo commanding him to destroy images at Rome and summon a council to forbid their use, Gregory replied with a lengthy defense of the pictures. Surprised that Leo did not already understand the distinction, he explained the difference between icons and idols. He went on to condemn interference by the emperor in ecclesiastical matters and, still worse, his persecution of those who made or reverenced icons. He told Leo that a council was not wanted and appealed to him to stop disturbing the peace of the Church. — all this in response to Leo’s threat that, should Gregory fail to obey, he would come to Rome, destroy the statue of St. Peter, and put Gregory in prison.

Gregory replied by pointing out that he could easily escape from Rome, adding that people in the West would never consent to destroy their icons. [Greg. II, “Ep. I ad Leonem”] The emperor answered, continuing his argument by saying that no general council had yet said a word in favor of images, and that he himself was both Emperor and Priest in one and therefore had the right to make decrees about such matters. Gregory wrote back regretting that Leo did not yet seen the error of his ways. As for earlier Councils, they did not pretend to discuss every point of the faith; it was unnecessary in those days to defend what no one attacked. The title Emperor and Priest had been conceded as a compliment to some sovereigns because of their zeal in defending the very faith that Leo now attacked. The pope declared himself determined to withstand the emperor’s tyranny at any cost, though he had no defense but to pray that Christ would send a demon to torture the emperor’s body that his soul be saved, according to 1 Corinthians 5:5.

We are fortunate, thanks to the sacrifice and suffering of many before us, that icons play a role in our religious life, in the church as well as the home and even when we travel.

No matter how much we know about the Bible, there is more to learn. The same can be said about icons.

To come closer to understanding their silent language, let me put on the screen one of the most famous of all icons, St. Andre Rublev’s icon known as “The Old Testament Holy Trinity,” an image that expresses in silence aspects of the nature of God that are beyond the reach of words. It was painted about 1425. Similar icons are widely used in the Orthodox Church every year, on the feast of Pentecost. Jesus’ first followers, all Jews, had known God the Father, creator of all things visible and invisible, from childhood. In Jesus Christ the Savior, they came to know God the Son. At Pentecost, they received the empowering gift of God the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, intangible and yet present everywhere.

The icon refers to the story of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to strangers by the oaks of Mamre near Hebron. This was indeed shown in earlier versions of the icon. Three nameless visitors who appeared in front of their tent were provided with food and drink, then promised the aged couple that barren Sarah would soon bear a son. Finally Abraham and Sarah understood their guests were angels. Throughout the biblical account the three acted in perfect unity and spoke with one voice. In this the early Christian community recognized a revelation of the Holy Trinity: three Persons within the One God.

Pre-Rublev versions of the icon showed Abraham and Sarah waiting on their guests. Rublev drastically simplified the image. Only the angels remain plus three objects behind them: house, tree and mountain. What had been a table with several dishes in earlier icons here becomes an altar with a chalice in the center. In stripping away narrative detail, Rublev shifted the icon’s emphasis from a particular biblical event to a meditation on the dialogue of love within the Holy Trinity.

The icon was painted for the iconostasis of the principal church of the Holy Trinity Monastery north of Moscow. The monastery had been founded in the previous century by St. Sergius of Radonezh, one of the towering figures in the history of the Russian Church. Sergius left no books, but by word and example taught all who were drawn to his community in the forest that “contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all discord.” The icon was intended to convey this teaching.

In the chronicles of the monastery it is remembered how on feast days, when St. Andrei and his assistant Daniel rested from their work, they would “sit in front of the divine and venerable icons and look at them without distraction…. They constantly elevated their thoughts to the immaterial and divine light.”

No photo or reproduction does justice to the actual icon. It possesses an astonishing transparency, a serene, shimmering, heavenly beauty. It was quickly recognized as surpassing any previous icon on the same theme. In 1551, the Council of a Hundred Chapters cited it as a model, calling on iconographers “to paint from ancient models such as those made by the Greek iconographers and by Andrei Rublev.”

“One can say without fear of contradiction,” the theologian Paul Evdokimov has written, “that nowhere in the world is there anything like it from the point of view of theological synthesis, symbolic richness and artistic beauty.”

But the light of the icon slowly dimmed. As decades passed the smoke produced by thousands of candles blackened the image. Twice the image was re-painted but each time in darker colors and with the addition of new details. Finally the whole icon except the faces and hands was covered by a golden oklad — an embossed metallic sheet. What had once been visible in paint was rendered in cluttered relief.

It was only in 1904 that a restoration commission freed the icon from its oklad and began the slow and painstaking removal of the overpainting that masked Rublev’s work. 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 Holy Trinity icon was a momentous event, doing much to inspire the return to classic iconography.

The miraculous grace of its colors and translucence defies even the most exacting efforts at reproduction.

The icon’s principal colors were pure gold or hues of gold. Azure blue was used in the garments of the three figures with many touches in their robes of a wash of lapis lazuli. A thin line of vermillion was used for the hardly visible staff each figure holds. There is a small area of deep green in the tree and a wash of delicate mossy green in the figure to the right. The colors for the clothing of the central figure are the most substantial: deep red, dark blue, and a band of gold.

Apart from clothing, the three are identical. They are neither male nor female. The long bodies suggest a male form while the faces might be those of identical sisters. Each head is submissively inclined toward one of the others; none of the three assumes an imperial attitude. There is an atmosphere of love, freedom, timelessness, rest and the most intimate communion. The sense of oneness is achieved primarily through the gentle, attentive engagement of the three with each other, the joining of eyes.

The structure of the icon contributes as well. Most important is the circle, symbol of perfection and eternity, created by the three figures; within the circle there is a sense of a slow counter-clockwise movement. There is also a triangle, the peak of which is the head of the central figure.

Due to inverted perspective, there is no vanishing point. The three figures are not part of a disappearing plane but rather seem to move ever closer to the person before the icon, showing that God is here and everywhere.

Which angelic figure represents the Father, which the Son, which the Holy Spirit? There has been much debate on the question. When painted by Rublev, each figure was identified but the names were lost in the process of overpaintings and restoration. Probably the Son is represented by the angelic figure in the center while the angel on the left represents the Father and the angel on the right the Holy Spirit.

The three symbols at the top of the icon are each angled to mirror the angelic figures below them. At the center is a tree. What was the oak of Mamre becomes the Tree of Life planted by God in Paradise; beneath its branches Adam and Eve fell, but from it, according to tradition, the holy and life-giving cross was made. As a tree is linked with our downfall in the Garden of Eden, it is also linked with our salvation. To the left is a building without a door — the church, open to all who seek sacramental life, in which we receive Christ in the Eucharist. On the right is a mountain — Mount Sinai, Mount Tabor, places where men have witnessed the glory of God.

Between the three figures is an altar on which stands a gold chalice containing, in miniature, a blood-red lamb’s body symbolizing the sacrificial death of Christ, the Lamb of God. (Later in life, Abraham was to sacrifice a lamb in place of his son Isaac.) The Father’s hand above the cup is extended in a gesture of blessing.

The image reminds us that, through the chalice, Christians are brought into communion with the Holy Trinity.

There is a sense of silent conversation among the three figures. The biblical text most often linked with their exchange comes from the Gospel of John: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent his son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

If one were to search for a single word to describe the icon, it is the word love. The Holy Trinity itself is a community of love so perfect that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one. All creation is a manifestation of God’s love. The Incarnation of Christ is an act of love as is every word and action that follows, even if at times it is what Dostoevsky calls “a harsh and dreadful love.” Christ’s acceptance of condemnation and execution witnesses to the self-giving nature of love. His resurrection is a sign of the power of love to defeat death. Christ invites each of us to participate in the love and mercy of God. “Love is the measure,” said St. John of the Cross, “according to which we will be judged.”

“Of all the philosophical proofs of the existence of God,” wrote the priest and scientist Pavel Florensky, who died a martyr’s death in the Stalin era, “that which carries the most conviction is not mentioned in any textbook. It may be summarized as follows: ‘Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon exists, therefore God exists’.” It is a way of saying: all beauty bears witness to God.

Icons: Word and Image Together

by Jim Forest

[a chapter for Beholding the Glory, edited by Jeremy Begbie, published by Darton, Longman and Todd (London, UK) and Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MN)]

There is no better way to understand iconography than to connect these two passages from the New Testament:

And the Word (logos) became flesh and lived among us … we have seen his glory. (Jn. 1:14)

He is the image (eikon) of the invisible God, thefirstborn of all creation. (Col. 1:15)

Christ the Word is also Christ the Image: Logos and Ikon. He who became incarnate became the visible image of the invisible. And today we meet him not only with our ears but also with our eyes.

Historical Roots

In recent decades, icons have come back to life in the western Church after a long exile, though one must add that in most parts of the eastern Church they survived only in a decayed form from the late sixteenth until well into the twentieth centuries. Yet icons are as old in Christianity as the Gospels. ‘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 (1) early in the fourth century. Not only did he see ‘portraits’, but during a visit to Caesarea Philippi in Galilee he saw a centuries-old bronze statue of the Savior outside the house of the woman whom Christ had cured of incessant bleeding. His witness is all the more compelling as Eusebius was one of those who regarded religious images as belonging more to the pagan world than to the Church.

According to legend, the first icon was made when King Abgar of Osroene, dying of leprosy, sent a message begging Jesus to visit him in Edessa and cure him. Hurrying toward Jerusalem and his crucifixion, Christ instead sent a healing gift. He pressed his face against a cloth, making the linen square bear his image. The miraculous icon remained in Edessa until the tenth century, when it was brought to Constantinople. After the city was sacked by the Crusaders in 1204, it disappeared altogether. Known as ‘Not Made by Human Hands’ or the ‘Holy Face’, the icon has often been reproduced down to our own day. The original survives in countless copies with all their variations. In the western Church a similar story is linked 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 the fabric bore a miraculous image. 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 tradition reveals the theological principle that behind Christ himself, God incarnate and visible, is the basis of all icon-making.

The evangelist Luke, author of the third gospel, is credited with painting three icons, one of them on the wood of the table where Christ’s mother and Saint John had eaten their meals. One of the three is ‘The Mother of God of Tenderness’ in which the face of the child Jesus is pressing his face against his mother’s. Another, the ‘Hodigitria’ (‘She Who Shows the Way’),has a more formal arrangement, showing Mary presenting her Son to us. Finally, there is ‘The Mother of God Orans’ — Mary standing with outstretched arms and raised hands in prayer, a gesture that seems to say ‘Let it be with me according to your word’. (2) In time the Orans icon evolved into the icon of the Mother of God of the Sign. Within Mary, usually contained in a circle, her unborn child is revealed as Christ Immanuel, ‘God With Us,’ vested in golden robes and looking outward while his right hand offers a blessing. It is an image often seen in Orthodox churches above the altar, a reminder that Mary, like the altar, is a bridge linking heaven and earth. The icon echoes the words of Saint Paul: ‘it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.’ (3) As one sees when standing before the famous Vladimir Mother of God in Moscow, a gift from the Patriarch of Constantinople to the newly baptised Russian church nearly a thousand years ago, ancient icons often bear layer upon layer of paint as later iconographers restored work that had become too dark or damaged with the passage of time. But perhaps at the foundation level of the Vladimir icon or another ancient icon is pigment laid down by the hand of Saint Luke.

Nearly all ancient icons were destroyed either during times of persecution in the first three centuries of the Christian era or during the iconoclastic periods in the eighth and ninth centuries. Fortunately there are many Christian images from the age of martyrs which have survived, most notably in the Roman catacombs and similar places, from Asia Minor to Spain. These frescoes are simple and sober images, made with few brush strokes and a narrow range of colours, with such subjects as Christ carrying a lamb, the three young men praising God from within a furnace, the raising of Lazarus, and the eucharistic meal. The catacombs bear witness that wherever Christians prayed, they sought to create a visual environment that reminded them of the kingdom of God and helped them to pray. Early icons of a more developed style also survive in Rome, though they are chiefly mosaics and thus have a monumental aspect, a type of public Christian art that only became possible after the age of persecution ended. In one of Rome’s earliest great churches, Santa Maria Maggiore, there are two long rows of mosaics dating from the fourth century, but, as they are high up on the walls, the visitor needs binoculars to see them in detail. The large and vivid fifth-century mosaic icons above and behind the altar, however, are easy to see and deeply moving.

The remarkable freshness of this very early Christian imagery has hit many modern viewers like a bolt of lightning — not least when they bear witness to the One who became incarnate. Among these was the writer and monk Thomas Merton who came to Rome in 1933, age eighteen, and found himself yawning until he came upon the mosaics that predate the east-west division of the Church. ‘I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics,’ he records in his autobiography. ‘I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found, and … all the other churches that were more or less of the same period…Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.’ (4) The principal icons were windows through which he felt Christ’s gaze.’For the first time in my whole life I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ… It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul…It is Christ God, Christ King.’ (5 )

Because of the storms of iconoclasm, it may be that no original icon from the apostolic age has survived. Even so, in generation after generation iconographers have sought to make faithful, though not slavish, copies of earlier icons, a process that continues to the present day. Thus images of Christ and the Apostles are recognizable from century to century despite shifts in culture, style and aesthetic sensibility. We know, for example, that Peter had thick curly hair while Paul was bald. But most important, the memory of Christ’s face is preserved, the face of God incarnate — the Word and the Image of God, Logos and Ikon.


Just as there is still controversy about images in our own time, so were there disputes in the early Church, and to a large extent they were bound up with the theology of the incarnation. Early critics 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 that 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 especially instructive to notice that those who were reluctant to accept that Christ was God incarnate were often also opponents of icons. The most burning question at the heart of the early Church’s many theological disputes was: Who is Jesus Christ? Some argued that Jesus was simply a man of such exemplary goodness that he was adopted by God as Son. Going further with this idea, others believed God so overwhelmed Jesus the Galilean that his manhood was gradually absorbed into divinity. There were those who argued that Jesus merely appeared to be a person of human flesh but was in reality pure spirit; flesh being subject to passions, illness and decay, they argued that God could never inhabit flesh. The orthodox answer — that in the womb of Mary the second Person of the Holy Trinity became a human being, thus that 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 sweat, suffer and die? Discussion of this issue and its implications constituted the centre point for the Church’s Ecumenical Councils. Though we find the orthodox teaching already expressed in the creed of the first Council, in Nicea in 325, it took centuries for the Church to shake off the influence of heresies which, in a variety of ways, denied the incarnation. In fact, the ancient debate burns hot to this day.

Particularly significant is that each Church assembly which affirmed the icon was doing so primarily to affirm that God had become fully human, accessible and visible to us. 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’. (6 )

The argument over icons reached its boiling point in the eighth and ninth centuries in what is known as ‘The Iconoclastic Controversy’. In the background was the rapid expansion of Islam 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 and destruction of icons from churches and private homes. Leo may have hoped his order would help stop the spread of Islam, which was firmly opposed to images. Many iconographers from the Byzantine world fled to Italy, finding protection from the Pope. Many who upheld orthodox belief suffered loss of property, imprisonment, beatings and mutilation. Some lost their lives.

‘Iconoclasts’ – those who rejected the use of icons and sought their destruction – argued that images of Christ, representing as they did his physical appearance, diminished his divinity by revealing only his humanity. 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.

The theologian who most powerfully defended the use of icons in Christian life was Saint John of Damascus (676-749), a monk and poet kept safe from the power and edicts of the iconoclastic emperor through ironic circumstances: his monastery, Mar Saba, perched on a deep ravine in the desert southeast of Jerusalem, was in an area under Islamic rule. Here he wrote his essay ‘On the Divine Images’ in which he appealed directly to the incarnation, reasoning that

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 colour of the flesh. (7)

Saint John also responded to the arguments of those who regarded Old Testament prohibitions of religious imagery as 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. (8)

The first iconoclastic period lasted until 780. Seven years later, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the bishops rose in defence 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. A careful distinction is made between the image and the person to whom it refers, without denying the powerful connection between the two — a distinction not always appreciated by those outside the Orthodox tradition who too easily suspect idolatry.

Just as the holy and vivifying cross, similarly the holy and precious icons painted with colours, made with little stones or with any other matter serving this purpose, should be placed in the holy churches of God, on vases and sacred vestments, on walls and boards, in houses and on roads, whether these are icons of our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, or of our spotless Sovereign Lady, the holy Mother of God, or of the holy angels and of holy and venerable men. For each time that we see their representation in an image, each time, while gazing upon them, we are made to remember the prototypes, we grow to love them more, and we are even more induced to worship them by kissing them and by witnessing our veneration, not the true adoration which, according to our faith, is proper only to the one divine nature, but in the same way as we venerate the image of the precious and vivifying cross, the holy Gospel and other sacred objects which we honour with incense and candles according to the pious custom of our forefathers. For the honour rendered to the image goes to its prototype, and the person who venerates an icon venerates the person represented on it. Indeed, such is the teaching of our holy Fathers and the Tradition of the holy catholic Church which propagated the Gospel from one end of the earth to the other. (9)

Nonetheless, a second iconoclastic period, less severe than the first, was initiated by Emperor Leo V in 813. Resistance included an impressive act of civil disobedience — an icon-bearing procession in Constantinople by a thousand monks. With the death of the Emperor Theophilusin 842, imperial objections to icons ended. In 843, Theodora, widow of the former Emperor, who herself possessed icons, convened a Council which reaffirmed the teaching of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and confirmed the place of the icon in Christian life. The first Sunday of Great Lent was set aside henceforth to celebrate what came to be known as the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’, a custom maintained to the present day in the Orthodox world when the faithful bring their home icons to the Church. One of the texts 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.

Rublev — Trinity and Incarnation

If in Byzantium the encounter with Islam initially had a devastating effect on icons, further north, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Tartar invasion and occupation 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. Little iconography of the first few centuries of Christian culture in Russia survives. 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.

Russia’s most renowned iconographer is Saint Andrei Rublev, first noted in 1405 while working in a cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin as a student of the master iconographer Theophan the Greek. (In 1988, when the Russian Orthodox Church was celebrating its millennium, he was added to the calendar of the saints.) In 1425 Saint Andrei painted the Holy Trinity icon, widely regarded as the highest achievement in iconographic art. (Plate 1) The icon expresses in silence aspects of the nature of God beyond the reach of words. The biblical foundation of the image is the story of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to strangers by the oaks of Mamre near Hebron. Three nameless visitors who appeared in front of their tent were provided with food and drink, then promised the aged couple that barren Sarah would soon bear a son. (10 ) Finally Abraham and Sarah understood their guests were messengers of God:angels. The three acted in perfect unity and spoke with one voice. In this the early Christian community recognized a revelation of the Holy Trinity: a communion of three Persons as One God. Painted for the iconostasis of the principal church of the Holy Trinity Monastery north of Moscow, the icon mirrors the teaching of the monastery’s founder, Saint Sergius of Radonezh: ‘Contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all discord’.

The icon’s principal colours are gold and hues of gold. Azure blue is used in the garments of the three figures with many touches in their robes of a wash of lapis lazuli. The hardly visible staff each figure holds is a thin line of vermillion. There is a small area of deep green in the tree and a wash of delicate mossy green in the figure to the right. Apart from the colour of clothing, the three figures — all shown in the typical form of archangels — are identical. Each head is submissively inclined toward one of the others; none of the three assumes an imperial attitude. There is an atmosphere of love, freedom, rest and the most intimate communion. The sense of oneness is achieved primarily through the gentle, attentive engagement of the three with each other, the joining of eyes.

The structure of the icon contributes as well. Most important is the circle, symbol of perfection and eternity, created by the three figures; within the circle there is a sense of a slow counter-clockwise movement. There is also a triangle, the peak of which is the head of the central figure. Due to inverted perspective, the icon has no vanishing point. The three figures are not part of a disappearing plane but rather seem to move ever closer to the person viewing the icon. The effect of inverse perspective attracts us, drawing us toward the table and thus toward Eucharistic life.

This icon has enjoyed enormous popularity far beyond Orthodoxy as a symbolic representation of the Trinity and as an invitation to share in the divine life. At the same time it serves to deepen our understanding of the incarnation by portraying what makes possible the incarnation. It includes many reminders that we can participate in the life of God only because God has first engaged with us, supremely by becoming incarnate. There are the three symbols at the top of the icon. At the centre is a tree. What was the oak of Mamre becomes the Tree of Life planted by God in Paradise; beneath its branches Adam and Eve fell, but from it the life-giving cross was made. As a tree is linked with our downfall in the Garden of Eden, it is also linked with our salvation. Above the Son (the central figure) is a building without a door– the Church, open to all who seek sacramental life, in which we hear Christ through his word and receive him in the Eucharist. Over the Holy Spirit there is a mountain — at once Mount Sinai and Mount Tabor, places where men have witnessed the glory of God. Between the three figures is an altar on which stands a gold chalice containing, in miniature, a blood-red lamb’s body symbolising the sacrificial death of the Lamb of God. And the colours of the clothing of the Son is most substantial — deep red, dark blue, and a band of gold — an indication of the incarnation.

There is a sense of silent conversation among the three figures. The biblical text most often linked with their exchange comes from the Gospel of John, expounding the purposes of the incarnation: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ (Jn.3:16-17)

The Word Made Flesh

The incarnation has consequences not only for humanity, but also for the whole creation, consequences vividly revealed in icons of the nativity. In the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, the Orthodox Church celebrates both the incarnation of the eternal Word, the Son of God, and the fact that the ultimate purpose of the incarnation was nothing less than the transfiguration of the whole created order. A prayer of the Christmas Vespers Service speaks of the whole creation joining in an act of gratitude and welcome to God incarnate:

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. (11)

This rich liturgical material is reflected in a fifteenth century icon of the nativity from the Novgorod school. Around the newly born divine child in the centre, representatives of the whole
created world give thanks in their own way. Even animal creation joins in recognising the incarnation of the Son of God: the ox and the ass gaze down on the incarnate Lord, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib'(Is. 1:3).

There is no charming Bethlehem bathed in the light of the nativity star but only a rugged mountain with a few plants: a hard, unwelcoming world in which survival is a real battle, the world since our expulsion from Paradise, the world in need of transformation. In contrast to the homely nativity stable that would become familiar in nativity images in the West after the era of Saint Francis, Eastern icons depict Christ’s birth in a dark, rocky cave, though what happened in the cave is placed before the cave’s entrance. The rigorous black of the cave of Christ’s birth in the icon’s centre 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’ (Jn. 1:5) dispersing the darkness of the shadow of death over the world. We see that the Christ-child’s body is wrapped ‘in swaddling clothes’. In icons of Christ’s burial, we will see he is wearing similar bands of cloth, as does Lazarus in the icon of his raising by Christ. In the nativity icon, the manger resembles a coffin. In this way the icon links his birth and death.

The most prominent figure in the icon is Mary. Orthodox Christians call her the Theotokos: ‘God-bearer’ or ‘Mother of God’. As Eve is the ‘mother of all who live’ (Gen. 3:20), so Mary is the mother of the new humanity restored and transformed through the incarnation of the Son. Placed against a red mattress — the colour of life, the colour 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,’ Leonid Ouspensky writes, ‘fallen [humankind] gives assent to its salvation through the incarnation of God.’ (12) The Virgin’s posture is significant. In some nativity icons, she is half-sitting, signifying her virginity and the divine origin of Jesus, refuting the idea that the humanity of Christ was not entirely God’s initiative. More commonly, she is lying down, exhausted after childbirth, which is intended to remind the worshipper of her full humanity. In the icon hers is not a joyful face. She lives 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.

Angels are an essential part of the nativity icon, bringing good news to the shepherds while praising and glorifying God. In our Novgorod version, two of them look upward while one looks downward. A shepherd plays a pipe, adding the human art of music to the angels’ choir. The wise men on the other side make their way toward Bethlehem with gifts, following the star which shows them the way. The star is not simply an astronomical object but a heavenly sign communicating news of the heavenly One born on earth. A ray extends downward from a sphere at the centre of the upper edge of the icon, an indication of heavenly world penetrating the ordinary. The shepherds represent the Jews, the Magi the Gentiles. Not the wise men but the shepherds were permitted to hear the choir of angels singing God’s praise. The wise men are portrayed as of different ages — revelation is granted independently of people’s experience.

Below the Virgin, midwives 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. The midwife’s presence also underscores the humanity of the incarnate Son, refuting the heresy that Christ only appeared to be human.

We find Joseph crouching in the lower left hand corner. The old and bent figure standing before him represents Satan come to fill Joseph’s mind with doubt. This links with liturgical texts which speak of Joseph’s troubled 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 the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all [humankind] – the difficulty of accepting that which is ‘beyond words or reason’ – the incarnation of God.’ (13) But our eyes travel back to the Virgin, turned towards Joseph, a symbol of compassion for those beset by doubts and struggles of belief.

The angels, the heavens with a star, the mountain and cave, the Magi, shepherds, ox and ass, Mary, Joseph — the icon gathers them all into a stupendous vision of the meaning and implications of the incarnation.

Silent Icons in a Noisy Time

For Orthodox Christians and many others, icons not only witness to the process of transformation made possible by the incarnation, but provide a means through which this process is effected in and experienced by the worshipper. It is one of the more encouraging signs of the times that they have been making such a comeback in Christian life, and even become objects of fascination for many people resistant to Christianity or any form of ‘organised religion’. Perhaps in this age of words and noises, icons in their silence can help us find our way to the Holy Trinity through the incarnate Son.

Further reading

Jim Forest, Praying With Icons, (Orbis, Maryknoll, NY; Alban Books, Bath, UK; 1997).

Simon Jenkins, Windows into Heaven (Oxford: Lion, 1998).

Henri Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1987).

Conrad Onasch and Anne Marie Schnieper, Icons: The Fascination and the Reality (NewYork: Riverside, 1997).

Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press,1992).

Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons (Crestwood, NY: SaintVladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982).

Michel Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’sSeminary Press, 1991).

St John of Damascus, On the Divine Images (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s SeminaryPress, 1980).


1. Eusebius, The History of the Church , chapter 7, section 18.

2. Lk. 1:38.

3. Gal. 2:20.

4. Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, (New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1948) p. 108.

5. Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain , p. 109.

6. Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, vol 1, pp 91-99 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978).

7. St. John of Damascus, On the Divine Images (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980).

8. Saint John of Damascus, ibid.

9. Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, vol 1, 134-5 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978).

10. Gen. 18.

11. The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (London:Faber & Faber, 1969), p. 252.

12. Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994), p. 159.

13. Ouspensky and Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, p. 160.

The Attractions of Orthodoxy

by Jim Forest

Noah's Ark (icon at St Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam)

“Tradition is democracy extended through time, a suffrage so universal that it includes not only the living but the dead… Tradition gives the vote not only to ourselves but to our ancestors.”

Reading these words by G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy in 1960, when I was new to Christianity and gradually becoming a Catholic, I rejoiced at the realization that an ancient Church was as exciting as an ancient forest. Raised in a culture that worshipped newness and youth, I was beginning to appreciate those mystical explorers who went before me, mapping the geography of spiritual life, choreographing ritual, creating religious art and music.

In those days the Catholic liturgy was in many respects as it had been for centuries. While Low Mass was typically a quiet babble of hurriedly whispered prayer at which the congregation was a silent choir of witnesses, High Mass was often a revelation of beauty: priests celebrating in elaborate eucharistic vestments which had their origins in the clothing of imperial Rome, clouds of intoxicating incense rising from brass censers swinging with sleigh-bell sounds, whole congregations responding in Latin, choirs singing Gregorian chant that blew away modern music. Such Masses had the taste of eternity: the rituals so radically out of fashion that the curtains were lifted between past and present. Many received communion, though it was by no means automatic. Confession was a significant element of preparation and was often a healing experience.

Unfortunately Mass wasn’t always that good. Many priests went through the motions with occasional glances at their watches. The decay religious art had suffered in recent centuries scarred many churches, undermining the Liturgy. In many parishes, communion lines were short and the confessional a place in which condemnation outweighed forgiveness.

Remembering the old Liturgy and its environment at its worst rather than its best, I joined in the general chorus of approval when the changes instituted by the Second Vatican Council were introduced. At last Catholicism had arrived in the modern world. The words “new” and “improved” had been stamped not only on boxes of detergent but even on the Mass. In the decade following, I gradually became part of a new Catholic sub-culture that pushed liturgical experimentation still further, adding and subtracting from the ritual and calendar as if playing with a box of Legos.

Now a quarter century has passed. In 1988 I became Orthodox, joining a section of the universal Church in which there has been no substantial change in liturgical practice in many centuries. Even the few areas of change are of a kind that has to do with tradition — such as each Orthodox Church building its Liturgy on the local language. But whether among Eskimos on the Aleutian islands in Alaska, Ugandans in central Africa, or Buryats beyond Lake Baikal in Siberia, the ritual is everywhere the same as it was a millennium ago.

What led me and so many others in recent years to make our religious home in a section of Christianity that many still regard as a kind of museum?


Orthodoxy is generous with time. An hour is never enough for collective worship. An hour-and-a-half to two hours is common; in Russia it can stretch to three hours. On Easter, six hours is normal, from before midnight until dawn. To the uninitiated, so many hours in church is torture. But to those who have escaped the fast-lane, such unhurriedness is bliss. It is much the same with public prayer as with a good meal in which the cooking and eating take hours. In Orthodoxy there is no “fast food,” no Macdonalds liturgy. Litanies, several of them very much the same, are sung — everything is sung — in a most inefficient way, while we endlessly sing back, “Lord, have mercy.” Why so much repetition? For the same reason that we are so inefficient in other crucial actions: eating, love-making, long walks — all those preferred activities in which the same actions and motions are repeated over and over again.

The time one enters in Orthodoxy doesn’t tick. It used to be I would glance at my watch, but as months and then years passed, the strangeness became less strange, my preoccupation with keeping track of time evaporated. Time in church became something like time walking along the banks of a stream in the mountains.

Orthodox time isn’t box-shaped. We are used to events that start at precise moments, “on time,” going on as a light switch goes on and maintaining a certain steady velocity, and then, again “on time,” go off with an almost audible click. In Orthodoxy the Liturgy starts when confessions end and never on time. The transition into the Liturgy is like the rising of a wave or the slowly intensifying light of dawn. The Liturgy ends in a similar way, the time varying, the wave receding.

The re-integration of spiritual and physical activity

We live in a society in which in the connection between physical and spiritual activity is often cut, not least in church. Our spiritual life is often all in the head. Our bodies seem paralyzed.

In both east and west, there used to be neither chairs nor pews in church. The main posture of prayer was to stand. In the west, chairs were introduced. Chair-makers haven’t done nearly so well in the east. “Wisdom! Attend!” the deacon sings out periodically during the Orthodox Liturgy. Standing helps one remain attentive. Standing is also freer — one isn’t boxed in. Once you get used to it, it is a release from prison for children and better for adults, though there are a few benches for those who need them as well as the freedom to wander outside the church for fresh air or a moment of rest. (Seven years ago, when I sought a bishop’s blessing for a book I wanted to write about the Russian Orthodox Church, he warned me that I would have to do much more standing than Americans are used to: “The first hour is difficult, the second hour painful, but if you last until the third hour, God will give you wings.” It has turned out that sometimes I get those wings, other times not. In any event I now find myself much preferring standing to sitting when I pray.)

The body language of Orthodoxy includes much use of the sign of the cross, a wordless amen that accompanies not only doxologies to the Holy Trinity but many other prayers. Often a small bow is combined with the action, a small but significant physical gesture of inner reverence.

The physical activities that accompany prayer are numerous. The light that illumines both icons and the church comes not from electric lamps but candles, each flame representing an act of prayer. The icons themselves are not only looked at but kissed. Occasionally the gesture is combined with touching the ground or floor — a reminder that the feet of Christ walked on this earth. If there is enough room it is customary (except during the season of Easter) for believers to prostrate themselves before the gifts on the altar after the consecration. The cross held by the priest during the final blessing is kissed by everyone.

Again and again, every bridge of the senses is used: the breathing in of incense, icons, candlelight and radiant eucharistic vestments for the eyes, constant singing for the ears.

Preparation for communion

When I started visiting churches in Russia, I was surprised that so few people received communion. I assumed the Russian Church was in the same benighted condition that had afflicted Catholicism until Pope Pius X began the long process of restoring the laity to full participation in the Eucharist. It took several years before I came to realize that the short communion lines in Russian churches did not necessarily prove that the iconostasis was a Berlin Wall between the altar and ordinary believers. Rather I became aware that many Orthodox people spend weeks, sometimes months, approaching the chalice. Confession, intensified prayer, attendance at Vespers the evening before receiving communion — these are frequent elements in Orthodox eucharistic life. Barring health requirements, there is a strict fast in the hours proceeding communion. (Exceptions occur. Earlier this year, on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, I was present at the first Liturgy celebrated at Akademgorodok near Novosibirsk in Siberia. Akademgorodok was a churchless town that was founded in the fifties by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In no Russian town is there a higher proportion of people with graduate degrees. Despite the fact that the event was out of doors and under heavy rain, with only the altar protected by a temporary shelter, hundreds took part in the lengthy service. The atmosphere of the Liturgy was so extraordinary that, by the time of communion, many approached the chalice even though they had not prepared for it. Chalice in hand, the celebrant heard their confessions one by one, each confession ending in communion. It was a day when many who had once been baptized but had long been estranged from the Church returned to sacramental life. Many tears – tears of both repentance and joy — were mixed with the rain.)

Repentance and forgiveness

To attempt union with Christ while refusing to be reconciled with others is to turn the Eucharist into a sacrament of disconnection. Response to Jesus’ demand that one must be reconciled with others before approaching the altar (Mt 5:23) has profoundly influenced Orthodox sacramental life. Especially on Saturday nights after Vespers and Sunday mornings before the Liturgy, there will be many coming to confession. This occurs not in a confessional closet but in the front of the church, with the priest and penitent standing side by side in front of a Gospel book and cross and usually before the icon on the Mother of God and the Christ child. Often the priest will quietly whisper the Jesus prayer as he listens. Typically, the content of confession is shaped by the Sermon on the Mount, the opening verses of which are known by heart to Orthodox believers as the Beatitudes (seen as a summary of Jesus’ teaching) are sung during Liturgy when the Gospel book is carried in procession through the congregation.

In the Russian Church, there is a remarkable event that follows the Liturgy on the Sunday before Lent begins. Standing before the congregation, the priest confesses his sins as pastor and begs the forgiveness of those present. If he is married, as is usually the case, the first to approach him after the deacon is his wife. His confession continues privately. She forgives him and then confesses privately to him, receiving his forgiveness. One by one each member of the church comes to the pastor, and then to every other member of the church, continuing the process of confession and forgiveness. Forgiveness Sunday, as it is called, is one of the immense treasures of Russian Christianity, profoundly shaping the Lenten pilgrimage toward Easter, and at the same time healing many wounds that have accumulated during the year in each parish. May Forgiveness Sunday one day become a practice throughout the Church.

The place of children

One of the remarkable sayings of Jesus was that his adult disciples should not impede children who wanted to come to him: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them.” I came to appreciate this teaching more and more as I struggled to explain to my young children why they were not allowed to receive communion in the several Catholic parishes we attended before being absorbed into Orthodoxy. How upset, in one case how angry, they were to be excluded from communion during the early years of their lives. Only in the past decade did I come to realize that this custom of western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, is of late origin, revealing our western preoccupation with achieving the “age of reason.” But Christianity is not only for the articulate, the intelligent, the educated, but also for the newborn, the senile, the slow and forever childlike members of society. (Perhaps one could say that Orthodoxy is itself a retarded form of Christianity, that is slow, not in a hurry, dramatically failing to keep up with the times.) In an Orthodox church children, even very young ones, have a particularly privileged place. More important, they may be the only weekly communicants. The Church sees them as not yet having become enemies to themselves, unlike those of us who have clearly reached the age of reason.

A climate of compassion

Sometimes I describe Orthodoxy and Catholicism as being like similar highways except that the Orthodox road is without police cars. Oddly enough, the Orthodox traffic moves slower despite the absence of police. It is a difference less in doctrine and ecclesiastical structure (Orthodoxy lacks a Holy Office) than climate. The climate of Orthodoxy has about it the sweet smell of God’s mercy.

One sees this in areas where precept is similar but pastoral practice different. Like Catholicism, Orthodoxy emphasizes marriage as an indissoluble sacramental union, yet the Church will bless second and even third marriages. Nor does the process require a remote bureaucratic mechanism resulting in an annulment sealed in Rome but occurs in the intimate pastoral framework of the parish and diocese.


The western word for the central church of a diocese is cathedral, from the Latin word for chair: literally the place where the bishop sits. In Russian the equivalent word is sobor, from the word for council. The cathedral’s decisive function is to provide a place for councils. At council the bishop presides but does not rule. Just as the Holy Spirit at Pentecost descended on the disciples gathered in the Upper Room, so does the Holy Spirit speak to the Church not through individual bishops or even through assemblies of clerics but through Councils where representatives of the Church — both clerical and lay — are gathered together. No bishop in Orthodoxy, including the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, has an authority similar to that which was gradually acquired by the Bishop of Rome. While Orthodoxy is quite willing to concede to the Peter’s heir the highest place of honor, it sees no bishop as having a role similar to that of a monarch or autocrat. Rather it sees its bishops as members of the community of believers who have special pastoral tasks but who are not uniquely equipped to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit.

The masculine-feminine balance

While every Church, like every society, is scarred by male chauvinism, I find a better balance between the masculine-feminine polarities in Orthodoxy. This is so despite the fact that that men and women are not seen as playing inter-changeable parts. Perhaps it has to do with conciliarity; both men and women participate in Church Councils. Perhaps it is because the great majority of pastors are (as were the Apostles) married: celibacy is revered but isn’t a pre-condition for priesthood. There is also the fact that women normally play crucial roles in parish leadership. Perhaps the difference also is influenced by devotion to Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, whose icons and feast-days shine so brightly in Orthodox life.

Restoring western Christianity

Despite the many heavy blows that have been suffered in the Orthodox world, the eastern Church has experienced much less division than occurred within western Christianity. There was no Reformation or Counter-Reformation nor further splintering of churches that eventually estranged so many from the Church in all its segments, so many of which seemed as merciless as sword-wielding armies.

The division of the eastern and western Church occurred so many centuries ago that the eastern Church was nearly forgotten in the west. Time passed. Our western churches changed dramatically, not necessarily for the better. Now we are in the early decades of the rediscovery of our relatives, fellow members of the Body of Christ who at first may impress us as being living relics. Yet now they are beginning to open certain doors of renewal for us as we struggle to overcome the aridity we often suffer within the western Church. Increasingly we place reproductions of Orthodox icons in our parishes and homes and learn not to look at these as primitive paintings but rather as places in which we can pray more easily. Gradually we are discovering that, in doing this, we have not so much gone east but rather gone deeper into our own tradition. What we find in the east we find in the west, except that in the west it has been buried, like good frescoes which were painted over by poor frescoes until we were so appalled at the graceless art on the walls that we only wanted to paint the corrupted walls white. Now what was lost or plastered over begins to come back to life. It is a kind of Easter that promises much for Christianity in both east and west. An ancient estrangement is ending.

Pope John Paul II has said that he will consider his papacy to have failed if, by the year 2000, the eastern and western churches remain divided. What a joy it would be if, during the first Easter of the coming Millennium, we Christians could sing with one voice and one heart the Resurrection hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.”

* * *

Understanding Orthodox Christianity

by Jim Forest
(written in the 1990s for Sojourners magazine)

icon and candles in Amsterdam (photo: Jim Forest)

For many Christians from other traditions, the Orthodox Church looks like Christianity’s answer to Ringling Brothers’ Barnum & Bailey Circus — no tigers leaping through circles of flame or clowns being fired from cannons, but vestments which make peacocks look understated and more ritual than in a trapeze act. The casual visitor to an Orthodox service is likely to come away impressed with “the theatrical side of it” and perhaps even a deep sense of God’s presence.

One visitor to our parish — St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam — asked me during the coffee gathering after the Liturgy “if two hours wasn’t just a little on the long side for prayer” and “was it really necessary to say ‘Lord have mercy’ so many times.” On the other hand, he was glad he came because “it was like a living museum, like Williamsburg, only here you get to see what the church was like back in the time of Constantine.” The surprising thing was that he returned the following Sunday and, back home in Chicago, eventually became a member of an Orthodox parish.

A Protestant visitor to the parish told me she felt like she was “meeting cousins I didn’t know I had.” She had read about Orthodox Christianity and knew about the Great Schism of 1054 when the bishops of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other, “but it just seemed like some detail of history.” She was amazed by the intense atmosphere of worship during the service. “I learned today that Christian worship doesn’t have to be a classroom with hymn breaks.” In her own parish, she said she had once suggested to her pastor he put up a blackboard behind the pulpit “because I always imagine it there anyway.”

Not everyone comes away from a first visit to an Orthodox church with positive things to say about it. It’s easy to find parishes where it’s a major asset to speak a language which was never spoken by anyone you ever met before: Greek, Russian, Romanian, Serbian or Arabic. Many parishes are not only places of worship but ethnic enclaves where national traditions are maintained and in which a great effort is made to keep the mother tongue alive. Yet look around and you will find in many “ethnic” parishes people whose hair or complexion or last name suggests this isn’t just a national club (our Russian parish has about twenty nationalities worshiping together), while in a growing number of parishes, those born in Orthodox Christian families or cultures are a minority. There are more and more Orthodox parishes in America where the main or only language of worship is English.

Because in many countries the Orthodox Church was the only social structure to survive oppressive rule, Orthodoxy is still haunted by the problem of nationalism. A priest in Moscow told me, “It’s easy to find Russian Orthodox Christians who are Russian first, Orthodox second, and Christian last.” It isn’t just a problem in Russia. In every country there are rivers of people for whom religion is the wallpaper, national identity the wall.

But searching for a parish “as American as apple pie” might mean missing the place God wants you to be. A member of the Greek Orthodox church in the Pacific Northwest wrote me recently about how annoyed she was at first with the Greekness of the nearest parish. She wasn’t Orthodox herself or a member of any church, but occasional contacts with Orthodox Christians had moved her from curiosity to fascination to a kind of longing for the quality of the spiritual life she encountered in Orthodoxy no matter what its ethnic shade. For her, the best thing that day was the warm welcome she received from an elderly Greek woman.

Even so, months passed between her first visit and the second. “Finally I decided that I would go back and go back and go back and go back until it no longer felt foreign to me, and then I would decide if I wanted to join. So I went back. The old woman remembered me — she later became my godmother. At the coffee hour, I sat down with a woman with a baby, babies always being good conversation. She turned out to be the priest’s wife and directed the choir. Of course, she needed an alto desperately, drafted me into the choir, and invited me to their house for dinner that day. The rest is history.”

What drew her to Orthodox Christianity, she explained, was the Divine Liturgy — its “beauty, reverence, peacefulness, the eternal feel, and the sense of community.”

Through its liturgical practice, the Orthodox Church ignores no human capacity in trying to open our hearts to God’s presence.

For the eyes there are the many candles, all the ritual gestures linked with particular moments in the Liturgy, the symbolism of the vestments worn by the clergy, the activities of other worshipers which, far from being distractions, are often inspiring. There are all the icons (from the Greek word for image), not only painted on wood and placed in various places in the church but the building itself, which often will have imagery on walls, ceilings and within the dome. Sacred imagery in places of worship has been part of Christian life since it found refuge in the Catacombs. Icons are objects of reverence, not worship. They help to lift the veil between our day-to-day world and eternity, reminding us that all who have died in Christ are alive in Christ. They provide a means of helping renew our bond with Christ, with his mother — her usual title in the Orthodox Church is “Theotokos,” meaning “God bearer” — and with all the saints who have given witness to transfigured life. They are not only looked at but are often “greeted” with a kiss.

For the ears there is the continuous chant and singing — apart from the sermon, very little is spoken. As St. Ambrose declared, “To sing is to pray twice.”

For the nose, there is incense, an invisible reminder of Paradise and of the Kingdom of God; it symbolizes our prayers rising to heaven.

Touch is also involved. Christianity is an incarnational religion centered on Christ, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, who has become one with us in the flesh. The early Church linked physical and spiritual actions in every possible way, a tradition which has been eroded little by little in many churches but has never been lost in Orthodox Christianity. It’s the body language of prayer. We don’t just say or think something, we do it. The words “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” are expressed with the physical action of crossing ourselves. There are moments when it is usual to lie face down on the floor. On Pentecost, we have “kneeling prayers.” Both fasting and feasting are physical expressions of the spiritual life — putting on your plate that part of the Gospel the Church is concentrating on today.

The pulpit is an architectural feature rarely found in Orthodox churches. Sermons are usually delivered from near the altar and tend to be brief and to the point — it’s unlikely there will be a reference made to a recent “Star Trek” episode and there are rarely any attention-catching jokes to warm the congregation. In many churches, the priest will hold a cross in his hands while commenting on the day’s readings.

There are two processions in the Liturgy. In the first, a book containing only the four Gospels is solemnly carried through the church, then placed on the altar — the “holy table.” Biblical readings are at the heart of the first half of the Liturgy, yet in Orthodox worship the goal is not to talk about God or become better informed about the Bible, but primarily to stand before God in worship. Entering the church building, we place ourselves in a situation where awareness of God is everything, and in which all that happens, all that surrounds us, is meant to help us be aware of God’s presence.

Despite obvious contrasts, Orthodox Christianity is not altogether different from what most Christians take for granted. We all have the Bible and most of us have some form of sacramental life, even if among Christians there is a tremendous range of opinions about what a sacrament is and what happens in baptism or to the bread and wine on the altar — the “holy mysteries.” Most of us live within an “iconographic calendar” — a procession of seasons of attention to events recorded in the Bible. We all belong to communities that revere the memory of certain people who gave witness to Christ and challenge us to be less fearful. But there are many aspects of Orthodoxy that, if nothing more, can serve to remind us of what was once normal for all Christians but has been lost by many along the way.

Take Pascha, as Orthodox Christians call the feast of Christ’s resurrection. This is the high point of the year in every Orthodox parish and home, truly the feast of feasts. Attending the Orthodox midnight service for Pascha is as close as most of us will get to heaven in this earthly life. For the main part of Christian history, Pascha was far and away the most important festival for all Christians, whether belonging to churches of Greek or Latin descent, but in non-Orthodox countries it has been increasingly overshadowed by Christmas.

Perhaps the reason so many of us have a Christmas-centered religious calendar is the impact of the “Age of Reason.” The birth of Jesus is something the most reasonable person can accept — if Jesus lived, surely he was born. Whether we think he was God Incarnate or simply a remarkable rabbi whose short life gave birth to a movement we call Christianity, still we can celebrate his birth. But nothing is more at odds with reason than believing a murdered man rose from the dead. For many people, the resurrection is an intellectual embarrassment, something best explained as a metaphor: “The disciples had an inner experience of Christ after he was dead and buried…”

Why hasn’t Orthodoxy experienced a Resurrection-to-Nativity shift? It may be pure Orthodox bullheadedness — Orthodox Christianity does not bow to the latest idea, the current fashion, the slogan of the moment, knowing that by the time any adjustment is made, we will still find ourselves behind the times.

It may have something to do with the millions of martyrs who have arisen in the Orthodox Church in the last few hundred years but especially in the twentieth century — the Orthodox Church has been kept close to basics by suffering, much as happened throughout the Roman Empire before Constantine.

Whatever the historical reasons, Orthodox Christianity is remarkable for its refusal to see Christ simply as one more of the “great figures of history” who needs to be freed from the rubble of miracle stories which obscure the “historical Jesus.” Orthodoxy remains passionately centered on the Christ of the Gospels: God Incarnate, born of a virgin, who died on the cross and rose from the dead, smashing the gates of death’s kingdom, becoming the rescuer of those who seek God’s mercy and love.

It’s no exaggeration to say these altitudes are normal among Orthodox Christians, not simply something we are supposed to aspire to. Given the pressures and sales-pitches of the modern world, this is a stunning achievement. What we often fail at is looking for the Christ of the Gospels outside the church building.

This isn’t a new problem, as we see from a sermon on St. Matthew’s Gospel delivered by St. John Chrysostom in 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 that 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.”

Because Orthodoxy wasn’t significantly influenced by St. Augustine, the Church in the Greek-speaking world never came to regard anyone as predestined for hell but saw everyone as being created for communion. The stress is on the primary fact of each person being made in the image of God and therefore worthy of love, even though we are all sinners. (Note the stress in the Jesus Prayer, so widely used by Orthodox Christians: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” A similar note is struck in the prayer used daily during Lent, “Oh Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of vanity, faint-heartedness, lust for power and idle talk, but give to me, your servant, the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love. O Lord and King, grant to me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother.”)

In some ways, the form of “western” Christianity that comes closest to Orthodoxy is the Protestant tradition, with its intense devotion to the Bible, with parishes having a high degree of autonomy and lay people bearing a major role in the decision-making process. I am especially reminded of Black churches, where services can easily run overtime, in which singing is the main form of worship, and where you sense that prayer isn’t just a formality but is deeply felt by one and all.

In other ways, the form of Christianity that comes closest to Orthodoxy is the Roman Catholic Church: it is sacrament-centered, stresses the pastoral role of the bishop, has a similar understanding of integrating the physical and the spiritual, counts many mystics among its saints, links each day with the calendar of saints, makes a similar use of symbols, and realizes we don’t travel toward heaven alone but as part of the community of believers.

The list of parallels with both Protestants and Catholics is long, but there are also differences. From an Orthodox perspective, the center of the Church is not Rome or any distant city, no matter how important the role of the bishop residing there, for no one can be head of the Church but Christ. The center is the altar of one’s parish church. This is the nearest throne of Christ. From the holy table, which supports both the Gospel book and the chalice, Christ both speaks to us and gives us eternal life.

As in the Catholic Church, the monastic vocation is of tremendous importance in Orthodoxy, yet celibacy is not nor has it ever been a precondition to being a priest. The vast majority of Orthodox priests are married. This makes for a very different climate in the parish, something closer to the Protestant tradition. The priest’s wife — called “Matushka” in Russian parishes, “Presbytera” in Greek, “Khouria” in Arabic — is usually one of the principal figures in the parish. A friend says that when her father, an Orthodox priest, is away, no one seems to notice, “but when my mother is absent, it’s a crisis.” Another tells me, “If the priest orders you to go right and Matushka says left, go left.”

But isn’t the Orthodox Church — or any church that only ordains men — sexist? Frederica Mathewes-Green, co-founder with her priest husband Fr. Gregory of an Orthodox parish in Baltimore, says one of the big surprises for her has been how seriously she has been taken in her adopted church: “I have been given many more opportunities, been invited more often to speak and write, since becoming Orthodox than I ever did as an Episcopalian. I have found the Orthodox Church to be more welcoming and ready to listen to my voice than the so-called ‘liberal’ mainline Protestant ones, which are only open to establishment voices and marginalize women who don’t say what is expected.”

Writing about women martyrs of the early Church in her book, Facing East, Mathewes-Green comments: “Perpetua, and the many women saints like her through the ages, stands as the best refutation of accusations that the Christian faith is oppressive, anti-woman, and inherently sexist. If that were so, women like this would not have been remembered and honored by the Church for century after century.” She notes that a number of women saints have been given the title “Equal to the Apostles.”

There is a strong movement in contemporary Orthodoxy to restore the ancient office of Deaconess, but the effort inches along at a pace that amazes on-lookers used to leaping time zones.

One of the notable Orthodox qualities — slowness — is downright shocking to most people when first encountered, but eventually is recognized as a healing experience in a society moving at high speed. Orthodoxy is Christianity traveling at four or five miles an hour. Practically nothing is done in a hurry. The best Liturgies are those in which you simply forget about time. To rush through the Liturgy would be like going to Macdonalds for Thanksgiving dinner.

Our lack of haste is linked to Orthodoxy’s care not to accidentally lose anything of value. This gives rise to one of the complaints frequently voiced about Orthodoxy — that “it’s stuck in tradition.” But is this such a terrible thing? None of us minds traditionalists in the kitchen — every loaf of bread is the work of a thousand generations and an infinity of hands. Are we obliged to be ceaselessly inventive in our religious life? Do the inventors and perfecters of baking have nothing to teach us about how to open the door to heaven? In “Fiddler on the Roof,” we hear Tevye singing the praises of tradition, the blessing of following sacred customs even when the reasons behind them are not fully understood. In voicing that conviction, Tevye might as well be an Orthodox Christian as an Orthodox Jew. It’s a point of view G.K. Chesterton defended in his book Orthodoxy: “Tradition is democracy extended through time …a suffrage so universal that it includes not only the living but the dead … Tradition gives the vote not only to ourselves but to our ancestors.”

Yet tradition is more than mimicking the steps great-great-grandmother danced. “Holy tradition is something alive,” says Bishop Kallistos Ware, a lecturer at Oxford University and author of The Orthodox Church. “It is not simply mechanical acceptance of things from the past. It is listening to the Holy Spirit in the present.”

The Orthodox sensibility is marked by immense respect for all those saints, known and unknown, who taught us how to perform each gesture as an act of communion with God. We depend very much on the wisdom of those saints we call “the Church Fathers,” referring to a community of theologians who were not only brilliant scholars but whose theology gives voice to their direct experience of God. For Orthodoxy, a theologian is not simply an expert on God but a mystic — someone who has been illumined by the Divine life. When you go to confession, the priest is quite likely to offer suggestions and help by quoting from the Fathers of the Church who were tested through spiritual struggle and whose teachings are trustworthy and sound. And confession itself is part of the necessary preparation for Holy Communion, along with prayer and fasting.

Part of preparation for communion is to be sure you have sought reconciliation with the people around you. As one of the prayers warns us, “Before drinking the Divine Blood in Communion, make peace with those who have grieved you. Only then may you dare to eat the Mystical Food.” It is a deep sense of being required to forgive and to seek the conversion rather than the destruction of enemies that helps explain why Russian Christians have not launched a punitive vendetta against their former oppressors.

Another blessing of Orthodox practice is the spacious welcome that children are given. The biblical foundation we work from is Christ’s instruction, “Let the children come unto me and forbid them not.” In the Orthodox Church this means baptism soon after birth and Eucharistic life from infancy onward. We don’t believe in waiting till they reach “the age of reason.” It’s true that as we get older, most of us become more capable of “understanding” and “explaining,” but has anyone reached the age when he or she can explain the Divine mystery?

A psychologist friend, Pamela Olsen, notes a contrast between the “western” approach, on the one hand, and the Orthodox, on the other: “The school of psychology that I was trained in was phenomenology — description rather than explanation and causation. Orthodox theology seeks to describe experience, rather than explain or prove, whereas western religion often seeks to prove with great unlikely leaps of ‘logic’ that never quite get it. (It’s interesting that western converts to Orthodoxy sometimes bring with them the need to prove everything.) I can’t remember if our pastor actually said this, or I gleaned it from things he : ‘We will tell you our story. You can take it or leave it. We’re not into trying to prove it. It is simply our story.’ The theological works tend to try and ‘unpack’ that story and discover/describe its many layers of meanings. So I’m not sure that the intellectual could be separated from the spiritual — words are so confining.”

What drew her from a Presbyterian background to Orthodoxy, she explained, was a “deep-down joy I experience coming into the church, smelling the incense, seeing the beauty, being surrounded by the icons, seeing familiar faces, being greeted with a smile or a hug by people who are also trying to live in the Kingdom of God. I don’t know what the true church is, but I know that God dwells here, and not only God, but a whole community of believers and saints, some of whom are there in the icons . . . a community that has endured and will endure.”

The Orthodox Church in brief…

The Orthodox Church, with more than 250 million active members throughout the world, is a fellowship of independent (autocephalous) churches each governed by its own senior bishop (called Patriarch or Metropolitan) and linked to each other by a common faith, similar principles, and a common liturgical tradition. Only the languages used in worship and minor aspects of tradition differ from country to country. The Russian Orthodox Church is by far the largest Orthodox church today.

In its doctrinal statements and liturgical texts, the Orthodox Church recognizes the authority of the seven ecumenical councils at which East and West were represented together. These were the Councils of Nicea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680), and Nicea II (787).

The Ecumenical Councils of the first millennium defined the basic Christian doctrines on the Trinity, on the unique Person and the two natures of Christ, expressing fully the authenticity and fullness of his divinity and his humanity. These doctrines are expressed in all Orthodox statements of faith and in liturgical hymns. In light of this traditional doctrine on the Person of Christ, the Virgin Mary is venerated as Mother of God and her intercession invoked because she was closer to the Savior than anyone else and is, therefore, the representative of fallen humanity and the most prominent and holiest member of the church.

There is no Orthodox equivalent to the office of Pope in the Roman Catholic Church. A “primacy of honor” belongs to the Patriarch of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), the city that was the seat of the Byzantine Empire from 320 to 1453 AD. The power exercised by the Ecumenical Patriarch has never been comparable to that exercised in the West by the Bishop of Rome. He does not possess administrative powers beyond his own Patriarchate, nor does he claim infallibility. The other churches recognize his role in convening pan-Orthodox consultations and councils.

All national jurisdictions have made their way to America, a process begun in 1794 by Russian monastic missionaries to Alaska and California. In addition, there is the Orthodox Church of America, which grew out of the Russian Orthodox Church but was granted independence by its mother church. Estimates of the number of Orthodox Christians in the US range from four to five million.

Further reading:

The Orthodox Church, by Timothy Ware (now Bishop Kallistos) — the best overall introduction to Orthodoxy. The author is a lecturer at Oxford and a monk of St. John’s Monastery on Patmos. (Penguin, third revised edition) By the same author: The Orthodox Way — theological basics of Orthodoxy, with many quotations from ancient and modern sources. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, second revised edition.)

The Year of Grace of the Lord, by Father Lev Gillett (writing anonymously as “A Monk of the Eastern Church”) — meditations on the Gospel arranged to follow the calendar. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.)

The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Olivier Clément — a systematic introduction to the radical writings of the Church Fathers. Clément reminds his readers that Christianity was originally a mystical religion; to the extent that churches have lost their mystical center, they become bone dry and lifeless. (New City Books)

For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann — a presentation of the Orthodox understanding of sacraments and the sacramentality of all creation. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

Praying with Icons by Jim Forest — a well-illustrated introduction to icons with a focus being their integration into prayer life. (Orbis Books)

The Illuminating Icon by Anthony Ugolnik — an introduction to Orthodoxy written mainly for American Protestant readers. (Eerdmans)

Becoming Orthodox by Peter Gillquist — a story of conversion that moves from the Campus Crusade to the Orthodox Church as a community of evangelical Christians try to find out what happened to Christianity between the age of the Apostles and the Reformation. (Conciliar Press.)

Facing East by Frederica Mathewes-Green — a personal, vivid, often funny introduction to Orthodoxy in the form of a journal by a convert whose priest-husband serves a mission parish in Baltimore. (Harper San Francisco)

Finland Diary

by Jim Forest

May 8, 1998 / New Valamo Monastery

There’s thunder in the distance and a waterfall-like roar all around the building. I’ve opened the window — three layers of glass — just to better hear and feel it. It’s cool outside but not freezing, though there is snow here and there on the ground and the adjacent lake is still under ice. I’m a lot farther north than I was when I put on my spring jacket and flew out of Holland this morning. This is the Finnish part of Karelia. The nearest city with an airport is Finland’s easternmost city, Joensuu, 375 km northeast of Helsinki and 65 km west of the Russian border. Ten years ago I was on the other side of the border not far from here.

It was an easy flight, clear skies the whole way. After admiring the patchwork patterns made by polder fields near the IJselmeer, I had a fine view of the Waddenzee and its sandbar-like islands, then across the North Sea to Denmark, over Sweden, then to Finland. There were three hours on the ground in the Helsinki airport before boarding a crowded plane to Joensuu, where I was met by Juha Riikonen, staff member of the Lay Academy at New Valamo Monastery.

We drove to the monastery, passing through a shower so heavy that it made me think of Noah’s flood. It was hard to see anything. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started, revealing the wilderness of rural Finland — dense forest and lakes. Finland has a population of five million people and nearly 200,000 lakes: one lake for every 15 people. We had a fine view of a vermillion setting sun sandwiched between grey clouds over lake and black forest.

There was a bag supper waiting when we arrived — by then it was past nine, when the kitchen closes. Before eating it in my little room, I had a walk around just to get a sense of the place. The main structure is a handsome, white-walled, copper-domed church in the old Russian style. The mosaic icon over the entrance indicates the church is dedicated to the Transfiguration.

Saturday night / May 9, 1998

Kristus nousi kuolleista! Totisesti nousi! (Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!) The Paschal greeting is hard enough to write, still harder to pronounce correctly.

It’s 10:00 PM and I’m in an office of the New Valamo Lay Academy adjacent to the icon painting room where a dozen skillful amateurs are busily at work despite the hour. Icon painting is one of the most popular courses here. The quality of the work is impressive, though all the students at this session are Lutherans except their Orthodox the teacher, Alexander Wikström. Lutherans come in great numbers to New Valamo — about 150,000 visitors a year, probably 90 percent of them Lutheran. One of the monastery’s vocations is to be place where non-Orthodox people can learn about Orthodox Christianity. It must be one of the reasons that about 600 adults each a year join the Orthodox Church in Finland — this in a country in which the Orthodox population altogether is roughly 60,000.

The day began with Liturgy in the Church. Before the service, I was able to venerate Finland’s most treasured icon, the Konevits Mother of God, painted six centuries ago on Mount Athos and given to the Valamo Monastery from its foundation. It has miraculously survived many fires and wars.

This afternoon I gave a lecture on prayer with icons to the icon students plus about thirty participants in other classes. By and large Finnish Lutherans, however attracted to icons and other aspects of Orthodox Christianity, seemed surprised at the idea that it might be a good thing to a have an icon corner in one’s home and to use it as a place of daily prayer. I read them Gorky’s vivid description of his grandmother’s time of morning prayer (from the introduction to Praying With Icons), then spent the next hour talking about what we could learn about the fundamentals of prayer from this hard-pressed, uneducated Russian woman who died before the 1917 Revolution.

The Lay Academy has about 3,000 students per year. The average course is three to five days and can be on a wide range of topics that have some bearing on Orthodoxy: liturgy, prayer, icons (not only painting them but learning to see and understand icons), church architecture, church history, monastic life, literature by Orthodox authors, the social dimension of Orthodoxy, and so on. All students take part in some of the services in the church and get a glimpse of monastic life.

In the late afternoon there was a service at a tiny lakeside chapel built of logs and dedicated to St. Nicholas. If it had been yesterday, we would have been chased inside by the rain but today there was only one brief downpour, sudden and fierce, during the Liturgy this morning.

I visited with the abbot, Igumen Sergei. His apartment is entirely furnished by things that had been in the abbot’s residence when the community was on the other side of the border. Apart from electric lights, there was no trace of the modern world. We could have been in 19th century Russia, though New Valamo’s present monastic community is entirely Finnish. Fr. Sergei is not even Russian-speaking. When needed he can sing the Slavonic service, though nearly everything is done in Finnish.

Part of our conversation was about the history of Valamo Monastery, which began on an island on vast Lake Ladoga north of St. Petersburg. For centuries it was one of the centers of Russian monastic life and missionary activity. It was Valamo that sent the missionary saint, Herman, to Alaska in 1794, the first Orthodox priest in the western hemisphere. Despite periodic destruction caused by wars between Sweden and Russia, the Valamo Monastery survived until the “Winter War” between Soviet Russia and Finland in 1940. With bombs raining down day after day, the monks had to flee. The community loaded up every sled they had with church and domestic furniture, books and icons. (Most of the icons they carried are typical examples of nineteenth century iconography — a vaguely Orthodox tribute to the worst Roman Catholic art.) Their trek ended here, in a part of Karelia that, luckily for them, remained part of Finland after Karelia was cut in half following Soviet Russia’s victory.

We talked about problems the Finnish Church experiences these days in its relations with the Church in Russia. “Eight years ago the old Valamo was returned to the Church and monastic life re-started,” Fr. Sergei explained. “The buildings are gradually being rebuilt, in some cases with our help. Unfortunately many monks of the restored Valamo do not regard us as Orthodox at all — for them, you can only be Orthodox if you are on the old calendar.” It is a scandal for them that the Finnish Orthodox Church keeps the main feasts of the same calendar as the Lutheran Church — an arrangement imposed by the state when it recognized the Finnish Orthodox Church as being a second state church. The issue still causes occasional tension among Orthodox believers. For years the Valamo monastic community was deeply divided within itself, part of the community on the old calendar, part on the new. It must have been easy for the monks to imagine Hell.

Still another irritant for the community at the revived Valamo in Russia is that the monks who fled the bombing in 1940 carried away nearly everything smaller than bell towers. While nothing at New Valamo is stolen property, the monks at the original location want it all back. I suggested to the abbot that, though they have no duty to return anything, still it would be a healing gesture if the Finnish Valamo gave the Russian Valamo some of the icons that used to be there — an icon can sometimes melt frozen hearts. Fr. Sergei agreed but said this was not something he could do unilaterally. Such things had to be decided by the Council of the Finnish Church. There are attachments on both sides.

Another source of tension between the Finnish and Russian Churches is the complex problem of Estonia, where the local Orthodox Church was broken in two, some parishes under Moscow, others under Constantinople. Estonian and Finnish are sister languages and the cultures are similar; the Finnish Church therefore has a close tie with the Estonian parishes now linked to Constantinople.

After my visit with Fr. Sergei, I joined Pekka Tuovinen, teacher of the theology of icons at the Lay Academy, in a visit to the nearby woman’s Holy Trinity Monastery of Lintula for the Saturday evening Vigil. Though with a larger community, the convent is a quieter place than New Valamo. While retreatants are welcome throughout the year, the nuns only open their doors to tourists in the summer months. This community too had a Russian base — a group of nuns who fled from the precincts of St. Petersburg in 1939, escaping with only one icon.

After supper, with the sun setting, Juha and I visited the monastic cemetery across the lake from New Valamo, walking among the many wooden crosses. Perhaps half the monks who came here in 1940 were dead by 1945. Many were old men when they arrived. One monk, Igumen Simforian, died in 1981 after 75 years in monastic life. Another had been a monk more than 80 years when he died 1984, aged 110.

Sunday, May 10, 1998

I just left Joensuu by train a little while ago and have been watching trees, trees and more trees out the window with the occasional small wooden house — sometimes a log house — here and there and lakes of various sizes. Juha and Pekka, plus Pekka’s dog Jona, brought me to the city by car, stopping at the social hall of one of Joensuu’s Orthodox parishes for a cup of coffee and a slice of Mother’s Day cake. Mother’s Day has the national flag, a blue cross on white field, flying from many flag poles.

The weather is taking a summery turn. Pekka said the thin ice that was the nearby pond yesterday was completely gone this morning. We saw only a few pockets of snow in deeply shaded places.

It was a very beautiful Liturgy at the monastery this morning — a full choir today rather than two monks taking turns singing the choir parts as happened yesterday. It seems the practice in Finland that iconostasis curtains are rarely if ever used and the royal kept open once the service has begun. As the melodies are in the Russian tradition, I had no trouble following the Liturgy, in fact felt carried into it as by an irresistible undertow. The whole congregation sang all the antiphons as well as Creed and Our Father.

Before the service I had a chance encounter with Igumen Sergei, who once again invited me to return, but next time “with your dear wife Nancy.”

More trees, more lakes, more cloudless blue sky. A perfect day.

Krista Berglund, a Russian scholar, met me at the train station who brought me to the Helsinki Parish guest room, a five-minute walk. The Helsinki “Parish” turns out to be a sub-diocese of 24 local churches with about 18,000 members altogether.

Leaving my suitcase, we walked down toward the harbor, stopping for a light meal at a café called Kappeli (the word means chapel), a mostly glass structure built in the days when Finland was a province of Russia. The heart of the city looks like St. Petersburg but with fewer scars. From our table we had a view of a fountain, the harbor and two great churches, the Lutheran cathedral to the left, the Uspenski Cathedral to the right, the largest Orthodox place of worship in Europe.

Thanks to Krista, I begin to understand why Helsinki has such a Russian flavor. Russians and Swedes were contesting Finland for most of the past thousand years. From the 12th century until the beginning of the 19th, Swedes had the upper hand. Then in 1808 Russia invaded — it was the time of Czar Alexander I — and the following year Stockholm ceded power to St. Petersburg, though Finland under Russia was granted a degree of autonomy. In 1812, the fishing village of Helsinki became the Finish capitol. The city center’s many fine Russian buildings in the classical style reflect this event. It’s one of the reasons Helsinki has played the role of St. Petersburg in such films as “Reds.”

The 19th century, the century of nationalism, saw Finns develop a deeper sense of national identity. In 1863, Czar Alexander II, whose statue still dominates Helsinki’s main square, began a process which made the Finnish language — in Swedish days illegal — equal to Swedish. There are still two “state languages.” In 1917, a few weeks after the Bolshevik Revolution, Finland declared its independence, which Lenin quickly accepted, anticipating that Finland would become Communist. Overnight the Karelian region, which included Valamo Monastery, with its population of Russian monks, found itself inside the borders of independent Finland. This turned out to be a good thing, given what was soon to happen to monks and other believers in Russia. Eighty years ago there was a brief but vicious civil war in Finland between “reds” and “whites,” with the latter winning.

In 1939, the USSR attacked Finland and seized the northern Arctic territories and much of Finnish Karelia — the “Winter War.” Finland, though attempting to remain neutral, allowed Nazi Germany to move troops across its territory against the USSR in WWII, but in 1944 managed to get out the war, ceding land and agreeing to pay reparations to Moscow. In 1948 the Finland reluctantly (“an offer you cannot refuse”) signed a “friendship treaty” with the USSR that obliged Finland to help resist any attack on the Soviet Union that involved Finnish territory and bound Finland to an uncritical role in regard to the USSR. The treaty, though allowing trade and good relations with the west, created a situation in which the USSR could influence Finnish foreign policy.

In 1989 Gorbachev recognized Finland’s neutrality. Three years later Finland and Russia signed a treaty that recognized equality, sovereignty, and positive economic relations. Also in 1992, Finland choose closer links with Europe by applying for membership in the European Union. In 1994 the EU accepted the application, endorsed by a national referendum. It seems to have been a good move — the Finnish economy is currently healthy after a long and deep recession.

One sign of the affluence is the omnipresence of cellular phones. They seem to be used by everyone in Finland but newborn infants. There are 2,500,000 such phones in use in this county with its population of 5,000,000.

May 12, 1998 / Helsinki

Fr. Heikki Huttunen took me to one of the city’s most remarkable establishments for lunch — the Orthodox Kitchen — two floors below the guest room in which I am holed up. This project of the Helsinki Parish is open once a week to anyone who appreciates home cooking and has little or no money. Fr. Heikki explained that, though the social support system in Finland is strong, there is a growing number of people who “fall through the net.” There were fresh-cut flowers on all the tables. The main decoration were signs in a vast array of languages, all with the Pascal greeting: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.” My main surprise was to find Metropolitan Leo at one of the tables in animated conversation with several men whose faces show as much wear as their battered clothing.

Fr. Heikki regretted that projects like this are so new to the Finnish Orthodox Church — the Orthodox Kitchen is only two or three years old. He blamed the delay in launching social activities on the Finnish Orthodox “refugee mentality.” He explained that 75 percent of the Orthodox community in Finland had to move west to be within Finland’s redrawn borders at the end of World War II. It was like the flight of many Orthodox to the Greek part of Cyprus after the island’s division. The Finnish Karelians were successfully resettled by the Finnish government but had all the usual traumas of uprooted people. Also many Finns regarded Orthodox people in general as Russians. For years many Finnish Orthodox felt like refugees in their own country. “We were for long caught up in our own difficulties.”

In fact Orthodoxy has been in Finland for centuries. The movement to translate the Liturgy into Finnish began around 1780. In 1815 the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided that in the Grand Duchy of Finland the biblical texts could be read in the language of the people. There are Finnish parishes in which the whole Liturgy has been celebrated in Finnish since abut 1850. Much of this was thanks to the constructive role played at the time by Metropolitan Anthony Vadkovsky of St. Petersburg.

Once again Russians are coming to Finland, he mentioned. Something like 40,000 people from the former USSR have becomes resident in the last few years. Last night at Krista Berglund’s flat I met one of them: Sasha Skopets, originally from Murmansk. She told us how tapes by Fr. Georgi Kotchetkov (the Moscow priest who is in hot water for using a modern Russian translation of the Liturgy) played a crucial role in her conversion to Orthodox Christianity.

My lecture — “Nationalism, Orthodoxy and Peacemaking” — was in the same hall of the Helsinki Parish building that is used at mid-day for the Orthodox Kitchen. Though Krista had prepared a translation, it turned out that everyone in the room spoke English fluently. As in Holland, films and many other programs are shown on Finnish TV in their original language, which in mainly English. For many Finns, English has become a second language.

May 13, 1998

I attended the Liturgy this morning at the oldest Orthodox church in Helsinki, Holy Trinity, a short walk from the Helsinki Parish Office in the direction of the harbor. It was like being in an old St. Petersburg parish: good examples of Russian iconography, silver work and architecture of the early 19th century. A choir of four sang.

For an hour in the late morning I met with Metropolitan Leo, head of the Helsinki Diocese, in his top-floor apartment in a building next to the Parish Office. He is a widower living with his father and 23-year-old daughter. We talked about his recent visit in Istanbul with the Ecumenical Patriarch, relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, the situation of the Orthodox Church in Estonia, the work of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and also my book on icons. At the end of our visit, he took me out on the apartment balcony, pointing out many Helsinki landmarks. We had a fine view of spring’s impact on Helsinki. You can almost hear the leaves bursting from the trees.

This was followed by a visit with Jyrki Härkönen, editor, of Orthodoksi Viesti magazine, Finland’s largest Orthodox journal, and later talked with their staff photographer, Pasi Peiponen, about the Russian pianist and outspoken Orthodox Christian of the Stalin era, Maria Yudina — a true Daniel-in-the-lions-den.

The next stop was at Krista Berglund’s for lunch: lentil soup and dark bread. Krista is editing a book on contemporary views by Russians writers as to what Russian-ness is all about, an issue much under discussion since the collapse of the USSR. We also talked about St. Seraphim of Sarov and the bear he befriended. Krista has a great devotion to bears. There is a sort of iconostasis over her computer made of photos of people dear to her but mixed in with the human beings are bears. There are more bear photos on the refrigerator door as well as several teddy bears in a corner of her small living room.

The day’s main event was a talk after Vespers at Fr. Heikki’s parish, dedicated to St. Herman of Alaska. The congregation currently uses rented rooms in a sterile business building in a suburb of Helsinki, but the handsome church they’re building should be finished in July and is to consecrated on October 4. Many of the icons that will be used in the new church are now in the rented chapel — all exceptionally good work. Fr. Heikki estimates that there are about 200 Finnish iconographers doing work of a quality suitable for church use.

Deacon Juha Lampinen, who does youth work for the Helsinki Parish, gave me a lift back into the city. It was after nine and, as I hadn’t had supper, I walked from the Parish Office toward the train station, ending up having a Macdonalds Fish- Filet sandwich for supper: 15 Finnish Marks, about $3.50. This is not your bargain basement country. Soon after returning to the guest room, Father Juha came knocking on the door and brought me back to his apartment for coffee and cognac with him and his wife, Maria. Their 11-year-old daughter, Marina, introduced me to her pet turtle. It was a blessing to be in a place where one has to step over toys.

May 14, 1998

There was Liturgy at Fr. Heikki’s parish at eight this morning for a group of 20 or so high school students plus a few adults, then a quick breakfast before we boarded a bus and set off for a two-day Orthodox youth trip, the theme of which is war, peace and Orthodoxy.

Going east, our first stop was the town of Loviisa, which hosts a four-day peace festival that starts each year on August 6, Hiroshima Day. Next we stopped at a rural center where those doing alternative service participate in a month-long program of preparation for whatever they will do in the following 12 months. Quite a few Orthodox young men have done alternative service at New Valamo, which was the first Orthodox institution to open its doors as a place of employment for conscientious objectors. Finland still has military conscription for men and maintains a surprisingly large army, but about five percent of those drafted opt for civilian alternative service though it entails a longer interruption of life.

The last stop of the day was at Lappeenranta, a stone’s throw from the Russian border, once a Russian garrison town. It has changed so little that I could imagine Czar Alexander arriving on horseback any minute. There’s a dirt street down the middle, a string of one-storey wooden buildings painted in pale greens and creams, creamy browns and mustards, several old brick barracks, and in the middle of it all the oldest Orthodox church still standing in Finland, built in 1785 and dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God.

This region is now as peaceful as Lake Woebegone, but 80 years ago, during Finland’s civil war, it was a place of bitter fighting and at times amazing cruelty. Not far from here an Orthodox priest was tied to the railway tracks by local Communists and killed by a passing train. For the atheist “red” side, priests were by definition enemies of the revolution, but occasionally the “white” side also attacked priests and pillaged Orthodox churches, as Orthodox Christians were regarded as Russian.

After a light supper, we sang a short Vespers service in the church, after which I led a discussion on confronting evil and overcoming the fear of death. Probably the most important thing I did was to explain the St. George icon, telling the story of this young martyr and explaining why he is shown in armor, riding a horse, lancing a dragon even though he wasn’t a soldier, had no armor or weapons, and never saw a dragon. What he faced was the dragon of fear wearing the armor of faith and riding the horse of the courage God gave him. His lance is not a weapon but the Cross. Whether or not we become soldiers, we are required by baptism to be warriors.

May 15, 1998

The day’s main event was visiting a training center for army officers and meeting with an Orthodox chaplain who gives a witness to the priority of faith by always dressing as a priest though he is an army officer. Lutheran chaplains prefer the uniform to clerical attire. At least in Finland military chaplains have a choice.

Back in Helsinki, I spent the evening at the apartment of Fr. Heikki and Leena Huttunen in the Tapiola suburb in the city’s west side: lots of trees, a breeze coming in from the balcony door, the sound of children playing outside. A week ago it was almost winter here — today it feels like high summer. I’ve given the last of the Dutch cheeses I brought along as house gifts and am sipping a dark Czech beer.

May 16, 1998 / en route to Amsterdam

Breakfasting this morning with Fr. Timo Lehmuskoski, we talked about was the tension within the Finnish Church between those born in Orthodox families and converts. Among the many converts is the current head of the Church, Archbishop John. The converts sometimes regard those born to Orthodoxy as bit players in the Church, less alert to Church teaching and practice than themselves, while the cradle Orthodox often regard those who came to the Church in adolescence or adulthood as Lutherans pretending to be Orthodox.

I’ve been gazing out the window at the scenery below, the parade of Nordic countries: Finland, Sweden, and just moments ago the last of Denmark. Off the Danish coast I had my first look at a whirlpool — huge arcs of creamy white converging in the sea on a dense foamy core.

Ah! The first glimpse of the Waddenzee islands and the Dutch coastline.

Jim Forest

text as revised June 4, 1998