Windows Into Heaven
By Deacon Ryan Jordan | August 28, 2019
It was probably about five or six years ago that I began to use icons in my prayer life. At first, I recall being off-put by the simplicity and sometimes exaggerated shapes in these pictures. But over time I found myself drawn to their mysterious beauty and symbolism. I gradually began to collect them and use them for my home prayer corner, and I never looked back.
In my last year of seminary Mallory and I had the privilege of learning the art of iconography for ourselves from a parishioner of our church named Judy, who has been writing icons for dozens of years. Judy was mostly homebound by the time we began coming over to her home weekly to paint with her, but she was serious about her practice as a spiritual discipline and full of life and joy whenever she spoke to us about these “windows into heaven”.
Judy was careful to remind us that the holy icons of our Lord and the saints are not mere decoration. They are not meant to be collected and appreciated as one sees art collected in a museum. Icons are the art of the Church, and amongst our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, they hold a privileged position of revealing God to us visually as the words of the Gospels do for us audibly. They are sometimes called “the Gospel in color and line” for that reason. The iconographer in the Eastern Orthodox Church is actually mandated by church canon law to practice a strict rule of life and prayer, and to pass on the traditional images like a trained scribe would pass down the words of a manuscript without interjecting their own personality.
The parallels between Scripture and the holy icons do not end there. When we come to the Scriptures as Christians we discipline ourselves to read them in a particular way: we recognize that this book is not like other books. In a way like no other book, this book reads us and judges us rather than the other way around. As grateful as we are for the findings of detailed critical scholarship on the scriptures, any approach to this book short of reverence, open-mindedness, faithfulness, and obedience is inadequate to the Christian disciple. We must discipline ourselves to avoid the (often understandable) temptation to follow the example of Thomas Jefferson, taking scissors and glue to the Gospels to re-shape them to our own liking and convenience. Rather, we humbly submit ourselves to the Spirit who speaks the living and active Word of God to us through the Bible’s authoritative witness.
Icons in like manner, through the prayerful discipline and traditions of iconographers passed on for millennia, transmit far more than our eyes can gather in a single glance. They too require of us the same inner postures of reverence, faithfulness, open-mindedness, and obedience. In these outwardly simple images, the living God reaches out and encounters us, teaches us, challenges us, comforts us, refreshes us, and renews us in hope. We do not merely look at icons, therefore, as we do not “merely read” Holy Scripture. But we gaze upon them with love and respect, not worshipping wood and paint, but rather acknowledging and honoring the one signified by them and present to us in them.
For those of us who are more visually oriented (and that is a growing proportion of the rising generation), using icons as a medium for prayer can be an especially powerful and transformative experience. St. Paul writes: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).” Somehow I find that when I look into the eyes of Jesus in an icon on my wall, it is as though his firm but loving gaze lays bare the most secret, shadowy and intimate depths of my heart, healing my wounds, lightening my burdens, casting away my fears and purifying my thoughts.
St. John perhaps gives us the surest reason to welcome icons into our life: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).” The eternal and invisible Word of God graciously and humbly took flesh of the Virgin Mary and became visible to us. It is an Evangelical impulse to proclaim not only the Good News of the Word of Life “that we have heard”, but also “which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands.” Should not the Gospel Witness grace our eyes as well as our ears?
So then let us behold His glory, and be transformed.