inspiration from icons?

Every trip to Romania I make sure I step into some Orthodox churches. I’m not sure what I’m looking for – if anything. Icons have never been part of my Protestant North American experience. I have always resisted any exposure to complex liturgy and ‘high church’ ‘smells and bells’ spirituality. It is not that I have been crusading against orthodoxy or that I jump on a soapbox and join my voice with some colleagues who are quick to categorize it all as ‘empty ritual’ – frankly, I’m just not moved by it. But I am interested from a historical point of view, and as an ‘explorer’ I am curious. 

No inch of wall or ceiling space seems exempt. I know we have congregational ‘discussions’ on what colours to paint the walls. Imagine the debates that would occur as we try to agree on what icon or artifact gets positioned where! 

I am sensitive to the reality that many of those we work with in the Barnabas Bridge ministry have come to faith, to the reality of life in Jesus, by leaving (in some cases escaping) the influence of the Romanian Orthodox Church. That notwithstanding, the icons, like any tradition, were quite likely initially intended to inspire, to be a reminder of the very real and personal spiritual transformation that the Holy Spirit desired to accomplish in the followers of Christ. It is true that in any religious setting, worship aides can become stale, routine – or they can be elevated and protected to a level almost equal to God. 

I direct you to a great book by Gerald Sitser: Water from a Deep Well; Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries, Inter Varsity Press, 2007. Chapter 5 is titled: Holy Heroes; The Spirituality of Icons & Saints. Some of his insights follow:

  • Icons are paintings that might look peculiar to us – but that is necessary  so that spiritual realities can transcend what our eyes naturally see, symbolically indicating a transformed life which in turn is meant to inspire us to the same
  • So we do not view icons in the same way we view other portraits. The icons are windows to glory, to the inner beauty of the saint. So the apparent unreality is intentional and necessary, not the result of inferior artistry. Distortions are not meant to deceive but to enlarge our inner devotional perceptions. Thus it moves from an object of admiration to an aide for worship.
  • Symbols: High forehead = wisdom; large eyes = luminosity; gaunt face = discipline and self sacrifice; halo = holiness; gold = timelessness; light that seems to come from inside = divine radiance from the indwelling Holy Spirit 

To be honest, I’m not there. But it is also true that I do not regularly visit art galleries. I am learning (married to a professional photographer, I had better learn well) that much can be conveyed in a photograph. As I witness an emerging post-modern church embrace the arts in refreshing new way, I wonder if there was a time when icons had the same radical impact. Watching the great crowd of Orthodox priests gather at a Bucharest Museum on September 29, 2011, one could sense the excitement as new icons were unveiled before the TV cameras. The display was impressive – and deeply inspiring to some. 

And yes, I still plan to enter Orthodox churches on the next visit.

post script: got a great email from Mary in Orillia after this post – wanted to share it with you along with my response:

I hear you Doug. Several years ago I tried to do some reading on the Orthodox Church and why it was that a good number of “Evangelicals” were turning to that form of worship, especially in the USA.  I thought I caught a little peek into  what the felt  need was in the more austere forms of worship. In what I read the Orthodox form certainly seemed to require much more personal commitment and  much more time required to meet the schedule and expectations of each worshiper.

Perhaps our form of Faith and worship is too easy?   

 I think I never was able to really work out why icons are different than the “no graven image” or idols.  And yet  my “gut feeling” is that  icons are different somehow and are an aide to worship for those who have them in their sanctuaries.  Have you been able to resolve that question yet?   Maybe that question is what will take you back again and again, to stand in awe of all that  earthly glory  and ponder……  At the very least it does cause one to  stand still …………….”Be still and know….”

Mary, exceptionally well spoken!!! Wow!  I can’t resolve the question about idols – because I am still so quick to jump to judgmental conclusions. As I watched the people enter the church (with apparent great respect for sacred space I must admit) and seemingly revere the golden images and the priestly rings I wondered how this form of worship could bring life to one’s soul, I wondered how this behavior could change thinking patterns, promote evangelism or foster commitment. I sensed a superstitious element to it all – but was that my own bias speaking? No question that people are wired differently and therefore worship differently. No question that Protestants are often guilty of severe, austere, creatively barren worship/devotion. For me, it is still too close to the golden calf kind of thing, but I can differ with respect knowing that idols come in all shapes & sizes – yes, even for Protestants. – dj

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About dougjohns

Doug Johns retired from ministry in Canada to devote more time to international work. Right now he pastors part time at the International Baptist Church in Bielefeld, Germany. He is a graduate of York Univ. (B.A.) and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div.). Doug is married to Yvonne and they have four grown children plus three grandchildren. Doug has had significant experience as a Presbyterian Minister in Ontario, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and New Brunswick. He has served as Associate Pastor at West Congregational in Haverhill, Massachusetts; Doug is committed to international ministry in Romania; and he has taken leadership in Christian Camping as Executive Director of Camp Fireside, NH; Glen Mhor Presbyterian Camp, Ontario; Timberline Ranch, BC. .... avid baseball fan of the Toronto Blue Jays ... Managed American Legion Baseball Team out of Creston BC in North Idaho League. Doug is a serious runner with many international half-marathons completed over the last 6 years.
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