“Come and see,” the invitation of Phillip to Nathaniel, is so simple and yet so profound. Christianity is about movement and about vision, but movement and vision in another sphere beyond the physical realm and even the dominion of the mind, beyond sensory perception and reasoning, yet never totally disincarnate from those areas. According to the fathers, the heart or nous moves and sees properly when overshadowed by the grace of the Holy Spirit. This blessed movement and vision is the victory of truth over falsehood, life over death, and eternity over time. The feast of the restoration of the holy icons, celebrated today by Orthodox Christians, is not about art, but about an iconic moving beyond and seeing beyond that translate the believer from the world of human vision and human thinking to a divine clarity of sight and thought through immersion in the very Kingdom of God where Christ is all in all.
How can icons of Christ, His Pure Mother, and the Saints affect a change in the way we see, the way we move or behave, the way we think, the way we pray, and ultimately who we are? In Ancient Christian Wisdom (ACW), I note, “In the Orthodox Church, the holy icons purify the spiritual vision of those who venerate them with faith and love.” When we love someone, the sight of that person brings feelings, thoughts, and responses that cannot be explained by the image formed on the photoreceptors of the retina. The same is true when we trust someone. When we venerate the icons with faith and love, the response elicited from the heart takes place on a spiritual level and the way we look at our meek and peaceful Savior wondrously influences the way we look at all His children.
In ACW, I also observe that the way in which thought processes are changed through icons can be seen in the way “the church fathers would also use the verbal icons or metaphors in order to alter spiritually unhealthy perspectives and to foster a Christian outlook. This practice can be traced back to Christ’s sayings and parables in which he employed metaphor and visual imagery to inspire the faithful to keep the commandments. Those who live according to the beatitudes are commended not as ‘good people’ but as ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘light of the world.’ Saint Theophan the Recluse recommended, ‘If possible, do not leave a thought naked in reasoned form as it were, but robe it in some sort of image and then carry it into the head as a constant reminder.’ This practice is consistent with the psychological finding that images can directly introduce new patterns into the network of schemata that guide a person’s responses to various situations.” When we look to an icon with faith and love, we are introducing a very different pattern into our mind than what we see on television or in the media. We introduce stillness, calmness, light, and beauty into our soul. There is no sarcasm, no scorn, but gentle love and tender compassion for all who sorrow. Letting such images into our souls allows us to see the falsehood and superficiality of so many images that are violently cast at us in daily life. And with the awareness of these very different images also comes the opportunity to choose where we will place our attention and who we desire to be.
When the noetic faculty is purified and governs the other lower powers of the soul, the iconic character of all the earth is mysteriously manifest and the beauty of creation shines forth. The Psalmist with a purified heart exults, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” When the nous is purified we begin to recognize the beautiful mysteries in one another and the world around us. The gratitude that overflows from our hearts at moments like these can transform us creatures of clay into earthly angels who genuinely love God and glorify Him with all our strength.
When this iconic way of seeing is present, the heavens are truly opened for the faithful. Then, when the priest incenses and the choir chants, “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice,” believers sense the spiritual fragrance of prayer, experience their prayers lifting them up from earth to heaven, and see their prayers arise higher than eyes can see to that unique safe harbor beyond the raging sea of this life. When that iconic way of seeing is present, the invisible power and significance of the mysteries becomes visible and clear as the day. Then, when the priest emerges from the altar calling the faithful to draw near with the fear of God, faith, and love, the faithful see none other than their Savior, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, offering them His Body and Blood for their salvation.
Today’s celebration cannot be understood by simply looking into the history of the iconoclast controversy and the eventual restoration of icons. It can only be understood by acquiring an iconic way of looking at the Church, the mysteries, our fellow travelers, and the entire world. Today’s celebration is the victory of spiritual vision, a victory of the heart informing reason rather than reason constraining the heart, so that we may not only venerate icons, but also become icons of Christ in this world.
—Hieromonk Alexios Karakallinos