Icons: Windows into Heaven

IconI just finished painting (technically I “wrote” it) my sixth icon with the noted American iconographer Peter Pearson. It’s an icon of the Angel Gabriel. The image to the left is not the icon I wrote, but it is from the same prototype by an iconographer who is much more “painterly” than I am. I do not have the hand of an artist, but then again, icons are not art. When I “write” an icon it is not about the product but the process. It is not an art project that I undertake when I write an icon but a spiritual discipline that I embrace. Long before I started “writing” icons, I was “reading” them. As a Christian with a spiritual temperament that is strongly “head” oriented – for heaven’s sake, reading systematic theology is a big part of my daily devotional life – I knew that I needed to be consciously cultivating my “shadow” side – my “heart” capacity – and it was on my deliberate journey in this direction that I stumbled upon, or was it, I was “led” to icons.

My relationship with icons began in the mid-1980’s when I was befriended by an Orthodox priest who was part of a ministry to the Homeless in Houston that I was part of too. Fr. Peter Demro sidled up beside me one day during a lunch break at an Allocations Committee meeting of the Houston Campaign for the Homeless and began grilling me on my Christology. The questions that he asked me about what I believed were far more rigorous than any that I had been asked by the committee that interviewed me for ordination in the denomination or by any pulpit committee that I had ever sat down with through the years to consider a call. And after an hour’s conversation about Caledonian Christology and Nicene Trinitarianism, Fr. Demro concluded that I was “orthodox” in my faith, embraced me as a brother and soon became my very best friend in ministry in Houston.

It started with a little icon of Christ on a prayer card. Peter gave it to me at the end of that first day we met. I was deeply touched, and so I put it in a little frame and I have kept it on my desk at the church where it still sits all these years later. When I travelled, especially when I was in denominational leadership facing the complicated and contentious issues that were facing the church, I started taking this little icon of Christ with me. I found that it had a strange capacity to keep me centered. It actively fostered in me an awareness of the presence of Christ in all my moments and activities. Someone has said that a relationship with an icon is kind of like a relationship with a cat – you’ve got to let it come to you; you’ve got to let it “find” you; you’ve got to let it address you first, and on it’s own terms. And this is what that little icon of Christ that Fr. Demro gave me nearly 30 years ago did. It “found” me.

In the ensuing years there were more icons to come. On birthdays, at Christmas, on no special occasion and for no particular reason at all, Peter would just show up with an icon in his hand and from his heart for me. I started hanging them on my office wall and discovered that they had the same capacity to usher me into God’s presence as had that little icon of Christ on the prayer card that Fr. Demro had first given me. They drew me into a spiritual presence. And then five years ago I started writing icons myself with Peter Pearson as my teacher – St. Francis, St. Clare, Christ the Pantocrator, one of the Virgin with the Christ child, Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, and now the Archangel Gabriel. And as I have, I have become even more aware of how icons function for me as windows into heaven. They are doorways through which I pass from earth to heaven.

Henri Nouwen explained, “Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and to bring us close to the heart of God… and as they speak, they speak more to our inner than to our outer senses.” Of course, icons are not the only objects to serve this function in the spiritual life. Morton Kelsey in his essay on “How the Spiritual Breaks Into Our Lives” in his book Transcend (Crossroad 1986) named 14 different ways, both helpful and unhelpful, of how this happens in people’s lives. In recognition of this, Madeleine L’Engle, the novelist, took a wider view of icons. “Whatever is an open door to God,” she wrote, “is, for me, an icon. An icon is something I can look through and get a wider glimpse of God and God’s demands on us than I would otherwise.”  The “key” here, it seems to me, is in those two little words “look through.” While we “look at” most art, an icon is for “looking through.” And for me, for some reason, icons just “work.” They function in my life as windows into the spiritual realm. They have a capacity to take me by the hand and heart, and to usher me into the presence of the One about whom all my theology books were written to explain and explore.

The bottom line for me is that icons have helped to take what it is that I believe is true in my head, and made it real for me in my heart. They have consistently facilitated encounters with the holy for me. I believe that this is a work of the Holy Spirit and that icons are just the tools that the Holy Spirit happens to use in my case to get the job done powerfully and effectively. Icons may or may not do this for you; that’s unimportant. What is important is that you find what it is that “works” for you; that you find what is it is that helps you make that arduous 12 inch journey from your head to your heart so that your Christianity might be just as real for you as it is true.

The Catholic Theologian Karl Rahner observed, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” By “mystic” Rahner meant the lived experience of God in our hearts to go along with our beliefs about God in our heads. I am not one to denigrate the importance of the mind in our spiritual awakening and formation. In Romans 12:2 Paul told the church that the key to our spiritual “transformation” is to be found in the “renewing of our minds.” This means that the spiritual depth and reality for which we long begins in our heads with our thinking before it descends to our hearts and our feelings. I believe that Passionate Christianity starts with “a serious applying of the mind to some sacred subject,” and then it gradually distills into our “affections being warmed and quickened.” But contact with the Divine – personal and experiential – is what we need, and for this to happen we are going to have to take seriously the reality of the spiritual world.

A.M. Hunter, the Scottish Theologian of the last generation (one of my favorites), used to say that in his experience there are “one world” people – people whose perceptions are limited to empirical reality, to just that world that they can touch, see, taste, smell and hear with their senses. And then, Professor Hunter said that there are also “two-world” people, people who while fully present in the realm that the “one world” people inhabit, are nevertheless fully aware of another world as well, a world behind the “one world” of sense perception. This is the spiritual world, and the whole premise of Biblical faith is that it is real and that it breaks in on this world of our senses. Isn’t this what we praying will happen in the familiar petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? We want that unseen spiritual world to impinge upon this visible material world and to change it. “Maranatha” was a prayer of the very first Christians. It means “Come quickly Lord Jesus!” It was a prayer about the Kingdom coming at the close of the age (Revelation 22:20), but it was also a prayer that was known to erupt from the faithful in services of public worship (I Corinthians 16:22). Either way, it was a plea for the spiritual world to break in upon the physical world, and whether the door through which this happens for you and in you is icons or not, you need to find where that door is in your heart and what opens it. And then, you’ve just got to let it happen. Your spiritual well-being depends on it.  DBS+


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