Lovely two days in Albuquerque attending the 9th annual New Mexico Dulcimer Festival - - now to put into practise what I have learnt.
Before coming home I went to St Mark's church near the university where icons, the iconographers, and healers are blessed and dedicated in honour of St Luke whose feast day was Thursday last (the eighteenth).
Lin Marksbury very kindly gave me a copy of his address:
Homily for St Luke's Feast Day
written and delivered by
at St Mark's Episcopal Church, Albuquerque.
Sunday 21 October 2018
We are celebrating the memory of St Luke, the First Icon Painter. People ask me, "Is that true?" - I don't know! Very little is known about any of the writers of the Gospels - there are a lot of stories and legends about Luke: that he was a physician, that he was Greek and not Jewish, he was a friend and companion of Paul, that he met people who had known Jesus, including Mary. His Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are major portions of the Christian Scriptures.
Our church has been through hundreds of years of sometimes very violent reformation and iconoclasm - people often feel uncomfortable with icons in the church, and don't know how to deal with artwork that isn't intended for decoration. People often ask me, "What do I do with it?" It's a good question.
The answer is, of course, that you pray with it - but that means lots of different things. You can say your prayers or sing the psalms with them - many times I will sit quietly with my favourite icons and meditate with them - see what thoughts and connections come to mind and what I think or feel about what crosses my mind. This is also a prayer of a kind. Really good art sparks an interaction or a conversation - not with the artist but with ourselves. It's a dialogue.
Let's have one together - I'll show you what I mean.
A thing about good icons is the facial expressions of the people depicted in them. They often look rather blank or even doll like - this can be very off-putting especially to westerners encountering icons for the first time. Western artists strive to depict very highly nuanced facial expressions in art - and icon faces can seem weird, strange, or I've even heard them described as "mean".
Of course, the expressions are intentional - as everything is in iconography - and are intended to show you something significant.
Christianity is an Oriental religion, and came under the influence of many, many other Oriental religions and cultures in its Middle Eastern homeland, including Hinduism and Buddhism, down along the famous Silk Road, which began in Xian, the T'ang capitol of China, and terminated at Damascus, in Syria. Art and ideas and missionaries travelled up and down the Silk Road, meeting, mixing and quarreling for thousands of years. All the little Greek kingdoms in what we now now call Afghanistan were Buddhist, and produced some of the most beautiful religious art from the ancient world. Images of Buddha also have this tranquil, sometimes sleepy eyed, expression. What is that?
Orthodox Christian believers often talk about icons as being windows into heaven - which is a good image. Another and more interesting image about icons is that, in a very special way, they are also like mirrors. A good icon is a mirror. It reflects something of significance back to you. Not your physical self - your appearance - but but something about your authentic interior self.
What does your authentic face look like?
Not the physical one - it's a metaphor - your interior one. Your heart. What does that look like? Who can you show that to? Anyone? Who can you share your authentic, true self with?
Icons look like that because the people in them are thought to have transcended the entanglements and attachments of the temporal; the temporary world. It's a value in all ancient religions - this "attached non-attachment"; this "interested dis-interested". It's actually the goal of spiritual practice - the Buddhists call it Enlightenment; Christians call it Salvation - a similar concept.
It doesn't mean that you don't care, don't feel, aren't involved. You care deeply and wisely. You care with an understanding about life's turmoil and have a broader perspective. You understand the life's pains and confusion, however awful, however devastating, are temporary. You do your best and try your hardest; but you know that most things are outside your control. Our perspectives are limited by what we can see and experience; we perhaps can't know anything precisely, even about ourselves, our own bodies, our own motivations and emotions remain mysteries.
Do you have any friends that you can share thoughts like that when you're suffering, or even when you're elated about something? Deeply wise, listening carefully, completely attentive, not trying to insert themselves into your narrative, but genuinely caring about you and your experience?
If you do you are very, very lucky.any people go through their entire lives never encountering another person they can have a real heart-to-heart with. That is a rare kind of friendship that takes years of careful and loving cultivation to have grow and flower. Some people may not even have that kind of experience with themselves.
It's the face of the icon! It's your highest, best self, the most important part of you, the part of you that is uniquely you, that lasts forever. Wonderful house, amazing car, beautiful body, well-paying job, lovely family - all the things that we acquire and accumulate during our busy lives have to be surrendered ultimately. Finally the only thing you're left with is you. The real you. What does that look like? Whom can you show that to? Whom do you trust enough to share that with?
We, all of us, acquire masks - duties, responsibilities, roles, commitments - they all require that we show a particular, often carefully arranged, face for each performance. Sometimes we become so caught up in the performances that we may forget they are roles, masks - not our true selves. Mother, father, boss, teacher, friend, priest, deacon, husband, wife ... All of them come into our lives and must go out of our lives at some point. What is underneath them all?
It's not something that happens by itself or happens, you know. This authentic self must be cultivated and cared for - you have to love it and listen to it and share deeply and kindly and often. It takes years of careful attention to nurture a friendship like that. You can't take it for granted or neglect it - just like a pet, or a child or a houseplant - it requires the investment of support and love to flourish. It can wither and even die if ignored. It can turn in to something quite ugly, closed, and self-centered - even violent and delusional.
Better watch that!
The original, ancient icon of Mary and Jesus that Luke was supposed to have painted at her house in Ephasus, where she was living with John, the beloved disciple, was lost long ago, but many, many churches in Eastern Europe are popularly supposed to have an icon that is believed to be that icon, or a copy of it. It's title is "She Who Knows The Way" and it is this beautiful image.
Mary is showing you her son. He is dressed like a Byzantine emperor, not like the peasant child he really was in Nazareth. Oddly, he is shown also with the features of an adult man, not of a child. This is also a poetic metaphor, of course it is, it is a picture of you, personally; you may not have been introduced.
Mary represents, and has always symbolized a kind of every-man and every-woman. A true human person. She represents what all of us, men and women, are called to be - the beautiful child she is showing you is the "Authentic Heart-Self" we've been meditating on. This is the highest, best, most beautiful and true part of you. It's dressed like an emperor because it is the most brilliant and valuable part of you - it looks like an adult man because it has the wisdom and equanimity of a mature adult - but it also has the vulnerability , spontaneity and joy of a small child. The icon is a meditation on what it means to live a human, humane life. Sorrow and joy, it's fleeting temporality, it's ultimate grace and beauty. Having an loving a child is probably the most human metaphor for selfless love we humans can imagine. Mary is showing you this gift of selfless, wise and devoted love for yourself. For your own life to have forever. To care for and share with. You will never be alone. You will never be forgotten. Your best, forever friend that you can also share with the other people you love deeply, and who also reflect this love back to you.
You see, your brothers and sisters are also holy icons.