The subject of icons has not been one to preoccupy me over the years, or at least not the limited definition of icons as sacred images painted (often using gold) on wood surfaces whose veneration is a key element of Eastern Orthodox worship. The topic only recently came forcibly to my attention with the introduction by the Historical Committee of Mennonite Church USA of its line of Anabaptist icons, painted by a devout Bulgarian iconographer, as a fund-raising project, with "Saint" Dirk Willems as the theme of its first offering (O holy Dirk, intercede for me through thy merits that I may rightly declare thy cause in this place . . .).
Lively discussion of the phenomenon ensued in at least one online forum, into which I myself incredulously plunged, apparently with sufficient colorfulness to be invited to respond to Don Lemons's thoughtful presentation of his own experience with icons and in the Syrian Orthodox church. Therefore I have had to take a self-administered crash course in 1 iconography itself, and 2 the history of iconoclasm, especially as putatively practiced by the early Anabaptists in the context of the Protestant Reformation.
Because that course is severely incomplete, what follows must be more impressionistic than analytical. I believe my premises are founded on authentic principles, but my crash course has already begun to teach how varied and nuanced has been the history of "aids to worship."
First I would like to test my hearing of Lemons's experience itself, then to critique that experience from my own perspective, which is Anabaptist, specifically Mennonite, in origin, with influence from participation in worship after the manner of Friends ("Quakers"). Finally there is Lemons's concluding suggestion that "[icons] call us to become more ourselves: more Orthodox, more Mennonite, more ourselves in ways we cannot comprehend."
Lemons tells us of his first exposure to icons as used in their natural habitat, in this case a Syrian Orthodox Church in Kansas, and reports that he was simultaneously attracted and repelled by the images. The experience was further influenced by the other elements of Orthodox worship, notably the "non-stop" music and the incense that filled the air. The repulsion he felt stemmed from his awareness that the "Bible warn[s] against graven images."
Now, he reports, the world of icons has become part of his world. After two scriptural references, one to God's creation of humanity in God's image - ergo, as the icons of God we all are - and one to Christ's being an icon of God, we are shifted from thinking of icons as living, breathing images of God to the viewing of pictures, static compositions, as icons, exemplified by the pictures of grandchildren that can remind a grandmother "who she loves and who loves her."
From pictures of loved ones, with a reminder that these pictures are perishable, become darkened with time, will eventually crumble into dust - just as will the materials of which icons are made - Lemons takes us to three examples of the Orthodox icons whose nature and purpose we are considering here: a Theotokos (Mother of God), an Anastasis (Resurrection), and a Pantocrator (Jesus as Ruler of All).
At this point I am struck by two things: one is the depth and complexity of Lemons's response to these images. The experience he talks about commands respect for its meaningfulness to him. The other is the repeated observation that although these images have been painted - or "written" - in countless reiterations over the years by many different people, certain elements are prescribed to be repeated in each incarnation, so to speak, of each image. If St. Luke, as the first iconographer, "wrote" the original of the Theotokos we see (as "Holy Tradition" avers - a term found frequently in discussions of iconography elsewhere although Lemons does not use it), that means all subsequent renditions of the image must be "expressed within a tradition."
The descriptions of each of the three exemplar icons are rich in detail and feeling, yet I am left with a sense of dismay at the intensely prescriptive aspects of the phenomenon: each subject is to be portrayed the same way throughout the centuries; the response to this or that aspect of the icon, or to icons in general, is meant to be this and not that.
It then becomes a relief to end the guided tour of the three subjects being presented to us and to move with Lemons into the history of iconography, iconoclasm, counter-iconoclasm, and especially Incarnation. Here I will signpost for later consideration his contention that it was the Incarnation itself that justified (yea, even "sanctified") the creation of images of humanity, including that of icons themselves.
Before launching into a critique of Lemons's experience from my own perspective, I must first state the Quaker principle with which I try to guide all such exercises: we must each live according to that measure of the light that has been given to us. As Howard Brinton put it in Friends for 300 Years, "if we are faithful to that, we will be given more." Therefore I affirm Don Lemons in the measure of light he has been given, even as I testify that my own is different.
Among other things, that means I do not endorse iconoclasm, at any rate when it refers to violent destruction of objects (a gloss of iconoclasm as "antisacramentalism" is another matter). I do not think works of art should be destroyed. The use of aesthetics in worship is certainly related to the present discussion, but it ramifies too widely to do more than mention it. What concerns me is whether the aesthetic experience ever substitutes for rather than leads to communion with God.
When Lemons says, "As incredible as it may seem, the invisible creator God became visible and clothed Himself in human flesh," I am reminded of the words of Thomas Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. He was walking down the crowded streets of Louisville, he said, and was suddenly "overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to each other even though we were total strangers." His epiphany culminates in this outburst: "I have the immense joy of being . . . a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. . . . But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun."1
In the recent online discussion of Anabaptist icons the whole movement toward increasingly formal liturgy and employment of liturgical elements in Mennonite and other non-Catholic churches came under scrutiny, and someone referred to a comment by Andy Crouch in Christianity Today. Crouch was wondering why the singing of "praise songs" is so often done with closed eyes." Maybe evangelical Protestants shut our eyes because there is so little to see in our churches. Open your eyes in, say, an Orthodox church, and you are surrounded by images of saints and stories from salvation history. Open your eyes in many Protestant churches and you see, well, other Protestants. Not always the most inspiring sight."2
I wanted to cry. What could be more inspiring than the sight of other human beings, complete with their beauties and their imperfections so similar to one's own, all gathered together in worship of and surrender to our common creator? Even in my childhood memories of an unadorned Mennonite meetinghouse (although we didn't call it that - we called it our church, if you please), I remember the sights, the living, breathing, smelling images of our farmer preachers and our fellow worshipers with great fondness. I recall the way the sun would shine on them in the summer or the artificial lights of a winter evening would outline their beloved homely faces and lumpy bodies, and yes, I remember that God chose to become incarnate in just such flesh.
If there was any doubt about how inspiring the sight of fellow believers could be, it was erased in the precious period of a few years when I attended a tiny Friends meeting. There we didn't even have the sight of three ordained brethren sitting behind the pulpit to provide diversion to our eyes - all we had was each other. And after a period of centering down and being silent and waiting for the Spirit, there were times when every soul in my range of vision seemed to be bursting out from the body that contained it to join all the others present and drift purposefully, glowingly, through the space we were in, and out to the whole world.
All of these, to me, are demonstrations of the very Incarnation that Lemons considers to justify the creation of icons. But the icons he speaks of, after having earlier acknowledged that we are indeed created in God's image, that we humans are icons of God, are not flesh and blood, but they are images of the images. Is it really good stewardship, for one criterion, to expend money and effort on the creation of more objects for us to acquire when all around us are living images of God, some of them longing to be recognized, acknowledged, respected?
No human artifact can give a direct experience of the divine. It can only convey information about another human being's experience of the divine. That very much includes the human artifact known as the Bible (the one by which Mennonites have hitherto been most likely to be seduced). That is not to say that a human artifact portraying someone's experience of the divine is of no value to someone else who is seeking understanding of the divine, but that no one should suppose that, having become thoroughly acquainted with such an artifact, they have thereby known the divine. They should rejoice that someone else has been so well inspired by their own contact that they have felt constrained to communicate that experience to others. As long as the contemplation of someone else's artifact leads one to conduct one's own search, or to open oneself to direct communication from the divine (often best accomplished by quiet waiting rather than strenuous intentional doing), the artifact is of value. There is a danger if the artifact is so frequently or habitually employed or contemplated as to become itself the satisfaction of the quest. Then one has found something, but it is only some other human's something. That makes what is found a fragment of God's being, because all human beings and their doings are fragments of God's beings and doings - but it can hide the special and unique message God has to give to each of God's creatures. We are each spiritually poorer when someone ceases to listen for the message that is for them alone to experience and to pass along and settles for the one given to someone else.
I submit that to look diligently for that of God in the unloveliest human being we can find may in the end prove more rewarding than to rely on an artificial, formulaic portrayal of some golden light on a piece of wood - however skillful, however aesthetically pleasing, however traditionally sound that portrayal might be.