Archive for October 31st, 2006

The Icon We Love the Most

October 31, 2006


Years ago when I was studying in an Anglican seminary (mid-70’s), I had the beginnings of my interest in icons. I owned a couple, and read what little was available on the topic in English at that time (believe it or not there was a time when not many books were available in English on the topic of Orthodox Christianity). One day, in prayer, I had an overwhelming urge to paint an icon. It was as though I had seen an image in my peripheral vision. It stayed there for a while – and I felt a compulsion to paint. I knew nothing about painting and even less about painting icons.

Sometime that week I went out and bought art supplies. I mounted a large canvass on the inside of front door of our apartment (the only flat surface we really had). And I began to paint.

In between studying and eating, I would paint. I would paint and repaint. It was almost like an obsession. I came to a place one day when I thought I might show my work to someone else.

One of my best friends at the time was a seminarian and an artist. I brought him in and asked what he thought. He began to laugh (not that the painting was that bad).

“Did you use any model?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I didn’t think you were supposed to use models in painting icons.”

“Well,” he started, “there’s something many artists know about painting without models. It’s that you tend to paint yourself. Your icon of Christ looks just like you. Can you see it?”

I never could see it, but an important point was made. I learned years later that icons are not painted without models – but that the model is always another icon. They are painted according to Tradition.

But I also learned something about myself and human nature. We like to make icons, but our favorite image of God is the one we see in the mirror.

An old friend, a veteran of many years in Alcoholics Anonymous once told me, “All you need to know about God, is that you’re not Him.” I don’t agree that it’s all we need to know – but it’s certainly among the first things we need to know.

That ignorance, the God whom I don’t know, is the surface upon which the True Icon can be painted. I only know God as Christ has made Him known to me. He is the icon of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).

What I painted years ago, was a false image, not only of myself, but of God. As the years go by, I see more clearly that I look nothing like Him. May God have mercy.

Without Expecting in Return

October 31, 2006


Our culture is famously ordered along commercial lines. We work, we earn, we spend, we spend until the card maxes out. Though there need not necessarily be any conflict between a free economy and the practice of the faith, many find Mammon to be a formidable foe.

On November 1, the Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of Sts. Cosmas and Damian, the “unmercenary physicians.” The short life given in the OCA’s official menologian says:

Trained and skilled as physicians, they received from the Holy Spirit the gift of healing people’s illnesses of body and soul by the power of prayer. They even treated animals [you gotta love these guys!]. With fervent love for both God and neighbor, they never took payment for their services. They strictly observed the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, “Freely have you received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8). The fame of Sts. Cosmas and Damian spread throughout all the surrounding region, and people called them unmercenary physicians.

I still find people to be generous – indeed the U.S. is historically the most generous nation on earth. And, more interestingly still, the great state of Mississippi’s citizens (the poorest in America) give a larger portion of their income to charity than any other.

Where we frequently fail, is to have the time to give to anything. We also work more hours than any other nation with the least amount of time taken for vacation. Then our lives become entangled in activities to where there is little time to notice the needs around us, much less practice the unmercenary faith we have inherited.

I wanted to go somewhere on my day off this week to just sit and be around people – sort of a hunger for a village. We have few villages other than those places people congregate in a hurry to spend money. Something is wrong in how we have configured our lives.

Unmercenary living includes time given that I do not expect to get paid for. Creating the time and space where human beings are able to meet and speak and live life face-to-face is perhaps one of our most desperate needs of all.

My first living experience in a suburb back in 1980 introduced me to the faceless neighbor. The neighbors across the street from us were new. We took cookies when they moved in. It was the last time we ever got a chance to speak. Shortly thereafter a garage door was opener was installed, and the fortress was complete. Arriving home, “up!” the door would swing. “Down” it would go. Even on weekends, “Up” the door would swing. “”Out” the riding lawnmower would appear with rider intact. Lawn mowed, “In” goes the mower, “Down” comes the door. Each man with his castle. May the holy unmercenary Physicians Cosmas and Damian pray for us. May our doors to one another stay open.

Silence and Tradition

October 31, 2006


If again we wished to oppose (Tradition) to all that belongs to the reality of the word, it would be necessary to say the the Tradition is Silence. “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence,” says St. Ignatius of Antioch [to the Ephesians, XV,2]. As far as I know this text has never been used in the numerous studies which quote patristic passages on the Tradition in abundance, always the same passages, known by everyone, but with never a warning that texts in which the word “tradition” is not expressly mentioned can be more eloquent than many others.

The faculty of hearing the silence of Jesus, atributed by St. Ignatius to those who in truth possess His word, echoes the reiterated appeal of Christ to His hearers: “he that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” The words of Revelation have then a margin of silence which cannot be picked up by the ears of those who are outside. St. Basil moves in the same direction when he says, in his passage on the traditions: “There is also a form of silence namely the obscurity used by the Scriputre, in order to make it difficult to gain understanding of the teachings, for the profit of readers.” This silence of the Scriptures could not be detached from them: it is transmitted by the Church with the words of the Revelation, as the very condition of their reception. If it could be opposed to the words (always on the horizontal plane, where they express the revealed Truth), this silence which accompanies the words implies no kind of insufficiency or lack of fulness of the Revelation, nor the necessity to add to it anything whatever. It signifies that the revealed mystery, to be truly received as fulness, demands a conversion towards the vertical plane, in order that one may be able to “comprehend with all the saints” not only what is the “breadth and length” of the Revelation, but also its “depth” and its height.” (Eph. 3,18)

Vladimir Lossky, Tradition and Traditions


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