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.

 

Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann

The Lenten season is meant to kindle a “bright sadness” within our hearts. Its aim is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this relationship. The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the brilliance of the Resurrection.

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Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press) was a Godsend of a book. My first encounters with Orthodox lenten practice were rather challenging. There were all these dietary rules, new services,  new prayers, and new church music, and I did not know how to make head or tail of it. This book does a wonderful job explaining the meaning of the traditional lenten elements, and brought their beauty to life.

The book covers with great detail and clarity both the theological and practical aspects of doing Lent well. There are thorough explanations of the liturgical practices, line-by-line analyses of some of the prayers,  and down-to-earth advice on maintaining a correct attitude toward lent. Deep theological concepts are explained with remarkable simplicity. A layperson or a  non-Orthodox Christian will have no difficulty understanding most of the text.

This book should be compulsory reading for Orthodox Christians during this season. I also think it has some benefit for non-Orthodox who wish to understand the significance of traditional Lenten practice a little better. I will not talk at length about it, because the Antiochian Orthdox Archdiocese of North America has made long sections of the book available on their website for free.

May this “bright sadness” be kindled within your hearts in this season of Great Lent.

Christ is in our Midst: Letters from a Russian Monk

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“By a Russian monk?” my priest comments as he glances on the cover of my book. “It is probably very practical.”

Father John (Ivan Alekseyevich Alekseyev) was a Russian monk who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century. This book (Christ is in our midst, St. Vladimir’s Seminary press)  is a collection of his letters to a wide variety people who have sought his advice on various matters. His pen-pals comprise a rather eclectic mix. There are writings to monks, nuns, and laypeople, to devout Christians, wavering doubters, and hostile atheists, to the elderly and the young.

As my priest predicted, the contents of this book are very pragmatic. Father John is squarely concerned about the struggle of living the Christian life well. The letters address questions of handling anxious, hateful, or guilty feelings, of dealing with difficult people, of coping with various physical and spiritual infirmities. He seldom writes in terms of abstract theology. Even when explaining Christian doctrine he draws on Jesus’ actions in the gospels, the lives of the saints, or anecdotes of his own experiences to demonstrate his points.

I suppose some might find his writings unsophisticated as a result.  But I really enjoyed how down-to-earth they were. The book served as a good counterweight for my own natural tendencies: I was raised as a protestant, and work in a profession that requires a lot of abstract thinking. I am used to thinking of salvation in terms of just holding to the correct doctrines. The Orthodox point of view is a lot more holistic, with a lot less separation between belief and action. “I will show you my faith by what I do” as it says in James 2:18.

The topics Father John addresses in his letters vary widely, but there are overarching themes about the importance of faithful repentance, even as we repeatedly fail:

You do not want to sin, yet you sin gravely. What can you do? We are human beings, bearers of the flesh, and are tempted by devils. Do not tremble and do not be depressed like that, even when a virtue is tottering. Stand up, straighten yourself and go forward again. Know that stability in virtue depends not on us, but on the grace of God.

…and to avoid judging the sins of others:

We sinners are so used to judging others. It has become a real habit, and we do not remember God’s injunction and the gravity of this sin.

Our judgment is always erroneous, for we do not know the reasons which prompted the sinner to act that way. We see only the sin of our neighbour, but not his repentance. Lord, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother.

Christ is in our midst is a wonderfully curated collection of wisdom, as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago.  This is one that I will gladly recommend.