Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons by Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen is one of my favorite Christian authors, and his is a very fascinating life story. He was a missionary in Peru, had an illustrious career as an academic theologian, with stints at Notre Dame, Harvard Divinity School and Yale Divinity School, before giving that up to work at the l’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, a community for people with intellectual disabilities. There, he developed an interest in ancient Christian iconography, which culminated in this book.

Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons is a collection of four essays on four famous Russian icons: the Savior of Zvenigorod, Rublev’s Trinity, the Theotokos of Vladimir, and the Pentecost Icon, displayed in order below:

The book contains beautiful glossy removable pages of all four icons, and I think Nouwen intends for the reader to contemplate them while reading the corresponding chapter of the book.

 

Nouwen makes the point that what we receive into our lives visually is as important as what what we receive verbally, through reading or listening:

“But what do we really choose to see? It makes a great difference whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The ‘powers and principalities’ control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videocassettes, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories…

For you who will read these meditations it is important to gaze at the icons with complete attention and to pray with them. Gazing is probably the best word to touch the core of Eastern spirituality. Whereas St. Benedict, who has set the tone for the spirituality of the West, calls us first of all to listen, the Byzantine fathers focus on gazing. This is especially evident in the liturgical life of the Eastern church.

Nouwen explains the features of the four icons in expert detail, and ties them into the devotional life of the praying Christian. He does not neglect the historical and liturgical contexts where these icons appear. Despite not being an Orthodox Christian himself, it is clear that Nouwen has taken the time to understand well the eastern Christian perspective on prayer and iconography.

This is a very worthwhile read, especially for the reader unfamiliar with the history and importance of iconography in the early church.  For me, as one emerging from protestant traditions that have suppressed the visual aspect of Christian discipleship in favor of just reading and lecturing, it was incredibly helpful to learn how the Holy Spirit works in us visually. As goes one of the Orthodox communion hymns, oh taste and see how good the Lord is.

 

Advertisements

Reverence

During Holy Eucharist, there is a red cloth that we use to make sure none of the bread or wine spills to the ground when it is administered. It looks something like this:

communion-girl
Pciture taken from the Mendeleyev Journal

I had the privilege once of helping my priest when he was cleaning the communion cloths. It was quite an experience! First of all, the priest had to wash it himself and by hand, despite the fact that we had a washing machine and dryer at church. Secondly, I had to dig a large hole in the church courtyard where we would pour the soap water after he was done washing, because it was improper for water that had touched the body and blood of Christ to go down the drain.

These traditions may seem to the outsider to be strange and archaic, and all the effort we put in may seem to be a big waste of time. But I appreciated the great degree of reverence that Orthodox practice confers on things that are sacred, even in the washing of communion cloths when nobody is watching. This is a big contrast to churches I have been to in the past, where I have seen breadcrumbs from communion littering the church floor, and being stepped on by the congregation!

I think I appreciate this reverence a lot more because I grew up in a monarchy. My mother told me this story once when a brother of the Sultan was admitted to the hospital she was working at. They had to obtain new yellow bed-sheets just for him (yellow is the color of royalty in Malaysia), and these bed-sheets had to be burned after he was discharged, so no commoner would use them and suffer the tulah. In Malay culture, the tulah is a deadly curse said to come upon someone who handles royal things improperly.

christ_the_great_high_priest

Due reverence to sacred things is deeply ingrained in both the old and new testaments, and in the tradition of the church.  Two stories come to mind. First, is the story of the anointing of Jesus in John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

Second, is the story of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6 3b-7:

Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.

When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.

This incident is mentioned in the Great Canon of Saint Andrew, a prominent prayer in the Orthodox Lenten liturgy

Merely for touching the Covenant Box to prevent its falling to the ground, Uzzah was struck dead by God. Avoid His anger at such presumption, O my soul, by showing true honor to holy things.

I have noticed that friends who grew up in America tend to struggle greatly with these two passages. For one unused to the idea of reverence, it seems that Judas is right, and that the expensive perfume is better used to feed the poor, and Jesus’ statement you will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me seems awfully callous. Similarly, Uzzah’s fate seems incredibly unfair, and God’s punishment in this instance seems very arbitrary.

I understand the modern arguments against monarchy. Republics are built on the idea that all people are created equal, and that leaders should be subject to the people and answer to them, rather than the other way round. Trouble arises however when people try to apply these ideas not to kings of flesh and blood, but to the divine. You are not equal to God, and he is not accountable to you the way that a Prime Minister or a Member of Parliament is.

I am grateful for the many small Orthodox practices that remind me constantly of this reverence. We bow frequently in services, we treat icons of Christ and the saints with incredible care, and we treasure all sacred things, whether they come in the form of holy water, holy oil, or even the communion cloth. This is an important reminder that when we worship we are before a being far greater than we are, that we are a finite thing facing unbounded greatness. The things of God are beyond our comprehension, and since we cannot understand how the grace of God operates in the sacred things, we should treat them with care.

But with this caution, comes hope. For if the divine is  greater than we are, so far beyond our comprehension, then surely the intractable problems of our lives and in our world, unsolvable in our human limitations are not beyond God’s saving work. We have the courage to press on, even when it seems to us that all hope is lost, trusting in the limitless God to overcome our limitations