This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every moring: great is thy faithfulness. The Lord is my portion saith my soul: therefore will I hope in him. The Lord is good unto them that wait for Him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD. Lamentations 3: 21-26

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Open Door – Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer

by Frederica Mathewes-Green
a book review

Hebrews 12:1-2
1Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
2Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

“There’s an old sermon illustration about the little girl whose pastor asked her, “What is a saint?” She thought about the stained-glass windows in her church and said, “A saint is somebody whom the light shines through.” (exerpt p. 81)

Have you ever looked at an Eastern or Greek Orthodox icon and ever wondered what was going on? Why do the Orthodox venerate the icons? Is it idol worship?

Having spent a few months at and Eastern Orthodox Church I was curious about icons and iconography. Growing up Roman Catholic I was quite comfortable and familiar with statues of saints. I am familiar with paintings that would be classified as “religious” that I have seen either in a museum, at a church, in a book, or on the internet. I totally got that praying for a saint’s intercession was no different than asking for my friends’ intercessory prayers. But icons were still a bit mysterious.

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a favorite author of mine. Her conversational style draws me in and makes me feel like we are just chatting about our faith over tea or coffee. The simplicity of her words is deceiving. She speaks of complicated and holy things without building a barrier with knowledge.

The Open Door takes the reader to an imagined church and walks with the reader stopping at the icons found there, pausing to explain the history and significance of the particular icon. Included in the book are pictures of twelve icons, four color plates and eight black and white photos.

Mathewes-Green examines the techniques and styles used to create the icon. The various methods invoke a response from the viewer. We learn that icons are often referred to as “written” and not “painted.” She also shares that iconography does not speculate what God has not shown us in the Bible, something more common in Western, and especially contemporary art.

Mathewes-Green discusses what responses might be common for someone not familiar with asking for the intercession of saints and Mary or the Theotokos as she is referred to in Orthodox churches. She talks about the different Eastern cultures that Orthodoxy draws from versus what is expected and common in Protestant churches in the United States. With great care she conveys what importance an image can carry.

Icons were, and still are, a very effective way of telling a story. When the majority of the population was illiterate an icon would, with specific images, tell the story of the saint they portrayed. The stance of a subject, the direction and position of the hands, objects included or held, symbols present, all form the story the icons tell. It takes time to learn to read icons. I know I don’t have it all worked out yet. But this lovely little book is a beautiful and gently led tour of icons and how they bless the believers who look at them.

A beautiful exerpt of The Open Door can be found here. It is lovely.

I am substituting in The Open Door for my Spring Reading Thing. Of course I've gotten off track. I'm not surprised.


DebD said...

I love this book! When we were in the process of becoming Orthodox I read bits and pieces of this to my kids to help them understand the meaning behind the icons. It was very accessible to me and the children.

so grateful to be Mormon! said...

hi julie-kins: i love how you quoted ... “What is a saint?” She thought about the stained-glass windows in her church and said, “A saint is somebody whom the light shines through.” so awesome! thanks for sharing.

~happy friday girl. blessings, kathleen :)