September 5, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – We are living in a world saturated with superficial images, flooded with “visual noise.” The problem with this situation is that prayer, which is the basic duty of the Christian, requires a certain interior stillness and detachment, a kind of expectant emptiness seeking to be filled. If we do not find ways to center ourselves on God, we will drift off into a million vain things and lose the vital connection with the source of our being and our salvation.
Undoubtedly, our turning to God is a work of His grace. But it is also at the same time a function of our free will, the voluntary application of our soul’s powers to acts of faith, hope, and charity. And since we are physical beings, we need physical aids, not just rarefied ideas and good intentions.
Enter the icon. Although the icon as people usually think of it is seen as the special province of Eastern Christianity, it is the common heritage of the first millennium of the Faith, and in modified forms remains part of the Western or Latin tradition as well. All Christians stand to benefit from the veneration of icons, inasmuch as they bring before the eyes of our body and of our minds Christ our God, His Holy Mother, and the hosts of saints and angels who populate the heavenly Jerusalem. As Linette Martin puts it:
The icon points us to something beyond itself; we recognize it and are expected to respond. … The icon insists that we respond as much with the mind as with the emotions. Icons are not directed only to the gut; they are the thinking man’s art. That is what makes an icon different in motive and in effect from some other religious pictures, and that is why some people dislike icons: they prefer Christian art to be decorative and undemanding. The Orthodox Church teaches that an icon is a two-way door of communication that not only shows us a person or an event but makes it present. When we stand in front of an icon we are in touch with that person and we take part in that event. … What we call ‘our world’ and what we call ‘the spiritual world’ are opened to each other. (Sacred Doorways: A Beginner’s Guide to Icons)
There is much to be said about icons, and for this reason I shall be returning to the subject more than once, exploring various facets of it. Today, I simply wish to dwell on the oldest extant icon of Christ Pantocrator (Judge of all).
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Dating to the sixth century, this arresting icon is one of only a handful in existence today that precedes the ecumenical council that definitively proclaimed the legitimacy and indeed necessity of icons (the Second Council of Nicaea, 787 AD). It escaped destruction at the hands of the iconoclasts thanks to its remote location at the monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai, which possesses thousands of ancient icons, many of them, like this one, fashioned out of colored wax.
The face of a man, not his chest or belly or limbs, is the visual center of his body. Therefore the face of the God-man dominates this panel, accentuated by a halo. Michel Quenot writes:
Ancient Greeks called a slave aprosopos, i.e., he who has no face. So by assuming the features of a human face, God restored to us a face in His own image, chained as we were like slaves without faces—aprosopos—because of sin. (The Icon: Window on the Kingdom)
Exaggerating the well-known fact that no human being’s face is identical on both sides, the icon presents to us the full truth of Christ in His justice and His mercy. On the side on which Christ holds the Gospel, His features are hard and severe, representing the Judge who sees all and who punishes the wicked. The expression on the side with the blessing hand is calm and serene, representing Christ in His role of merciful savior. The pronounced three-dimensionality of the Gospel side represents the Lord’s humanity, His entrance into space and time, while the two-dimensionality of the blessing side represents His divinity, which is outside of space and time.
Again, Martin helps us to see why the iconographer adopts this startling approach:
Fear and love seem like opposite ends of a line, but in prayer that line becomes a circle. … To love what is greater than ourselves should be a fearful experience if we have a proper sense of proportion. … One look at the Christ Pantocrator and you fell to the ground with adoration, a word that suggests fearful love. The greatest icons of Christ hold together the apparently antithetical qualities of justice and mercy. They are never harshly formidable, but neither are they ever sentimental.
Instead of receding from us in “naturalistic” perspective, the book of the Gospels thrusts itself forward as if rushing towards us. This “inverse” perspective crosses over the gap between the viewer and the image, embracing us in its meaning and compelling our involvement. Christ is entering the world, not receding from it; He enters to teach, to bless, to command, to save, and to judge. Our response is to quiet ourselves as listeners, to welcome His blessing, to obey His commandments, to beg for His mercy, and to adore His holy Presence.
Since icons are a testimony to the reality of the Incarnation, it is highly fitting and an immense advantage for praying to have a solid, wood-panel icon, a real permanent object you can hold, bow towards, and kiss, rather than paper printouts or images on screen (like this one). Those who cannot yet invest in a handwritten icon may acquire good laminated reproductions from Byzantine monasteries like St. Isaac’s Skete or Holy Transfiguration in Jordanville.
The modern world of flickering images—TV, movies, advertising, computer programs—competes with the holy icons for your attention. You have only so much attention to give; what will you give it to? What are you attending to?
The hyperrealism of video technology has led to the unreality and neutralization of the visual domain. It is all “projected,” for the sake of consumption. The holy icons are not projected and cannot be consumed. They are written for our purification, illumination, and unification with God. They are inexhaustible riches that we cannot “own.” They throw open a window into a heavenly reality that is greater than our world. They are capable of restoring our humanity, which we are always in danger of losing, like the slaves without faces. Beyond this healing function, the holy icons, in company with the divine liturgy and the holy sacraments, divinize us.
If we want to habituate our eyes and ears to God’s light and voice, we need to “fast” from spiritual junk food (such as movies and pop music) and feast our senses on images and sounds that are truly nourishing and satisfying to the soul—objects that are better proportioned to the dignity and loftiness of our immortal souls and our eternal destiny.
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