“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. The words in this book come from my own gazing at icons. They may or may not touch you. But if they help you only a little to start seeing these icons for yourself, my words will have fulfilled their purpose and may be forgotten. Then these icons will have become yours and they can guide you by day and by night, in good times and in bad, when you feel sad and when you feel joyful. They will begin to speak of the unique way in which God has chosen to love you.
Why icons? Would it not have been better to use more accessible paintings such as those by Michelangelo, Rembrandt or Marc Chagall? The great treasures of Western art might indeed be more attractive, but I have chosen icons because they are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God.” ~ Henri J.M. Nouwen excerpted from the book titled “Behold the Beauty of the Lord-Praying With Icons.”
“… through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible …”
In reading and re-reading Henri’s statement, I do believe the “gate” appeared for me when I registered for the workshop in the traditional Russian-Byzantine method of icon writing taught by Fr. Iguman Mefodii, a Master Iconographer who studied under Vladislav Andrejev. Upon entering the little church of St. Herman of Alaska in Stafford, Virginia, I immediately felt at home. Although I am Catholic, the little Orthodox church very much reminded me of my childhood; fresh wax and the faint scent of incense coupled with the beauty of the icons was exactly what touched my senses. It was then the scales fell from my eyes and a wealth of emotions stirred in my soul. Allow me to explain.
My parents, (both secular Franciscans) had a nightly ritual which as a child I found irritating and embarrassing. After our evening meal, we were rounded up and sequestered in the family room for the “Examination of Conscience” hour. We endured “de Colores” sung by my Father accompanied by his strummings on his out-of-tune guitar. As the opening act to this excruciating hour of purgatory was completed, we were asked several questions to ponder before the remaining time allotted came to a grateful end:
“Who have you helped today through speech, action or unseen deed ?” “Who have you hurt today through speech, action or unseen deed?” “What can you do in your tomorrow that will better your speech, actions or deeds?” “What can you do in your tomorrow that will repair damages produced by your speech, actions or deeds?”
I thought both parents insane to subject their children to this practice. While our friends enjoyed fresh bowls of popcorn while watching movies or were outside catching fireflies in the light of the moon or playing green ghost by flashlight … the Michieli children were subjected to examining their consciences! Thinking there was much more fun to be had outside playing rather than fettered by the dictates of parental controls, we nonetheless, obeyed. Oh the perils we suffered!
Little did I realize the foundations to contemplative prayer had been carefully laid by two discerning parents tasked with the unending preparation of their children’s souls. It was not until I began to explore the deeper meanings of icons that I realized what an impact those four questions asked of us so long ago actually bore. Entering our interior rooms to explore our souls with each dip of the sable brush during an icon class; we find a wealth of behaviors and deeds that can be changed right there at that very moment of beginning the process of reflective prayer! There are no words in the human language to articulate the emotional connection we experience when we pray/write an icon, the very sacredness of this process brings tears to one’s eyes. As we explore the depths of our souls and God speaks to us in the silence of our hearts, we actively engage in the Mystery of the Invisible. Thank you Mom and Dad for giving your daughter the gift of the Examination of Conscience, I am no longer irritated nor embarrassed.