Icons – Showing Me a Way….
By Kim Long
I joked, half-heartedly, about my upcoming trip to Russia and my plan to ditch optional clothing in order to have more room in my luggage to bring back icons. I did exactly that-two tee shirts, a sweater, and one pair of leggings later my suitcase barely closed.
I have not always appreciated icons. When I encountered my first one in the 1980s, I dropped it like a hot Irish potato. They were too severe, too elegant, too honest, too much. Not understanding the point of iconography I defaulted to the familiar images holy cards sported…the manly Jesus and the almost child-like images of Mary, and the earnest and careworn saints, weary from all that interceding.
In our parish gift shop, the icons were suspended on invisible hooks, lining an entire wall. They were beginning to speak to me. Later, I bought a triptych I was particularly fond of. In the early days, I was still not completely comfortable with them so I relegated them to the Easter season, hauling them out and using them to guide me through the fifty days. They have turned out to be very good travel companions as we navigated our return to ordinary time. A lovely silver one of the Blessed Mother which could not find a home now rests in the center of my icon wall, my nod to the elaborate and holy iconostasis in all Orthodox churches.
Twenty years later, I began to listen as the icons tried whispering again.
My mother and I had a very difficult relationship as adults; a dynamic I fervently want to avoid with my own children. After her death, I realized we had left some things too late and they would never be resolved here in this plane of existence. Therapy helped, as did confession, both with a priest and my girlfriends complete with appetizers and glasses upon glasses of red wine.
Then, something happened. I don’t recall the nature of the trigger, it could have been a song, the feel of the day, even the particular way the wind brushed my check, once surfaced, it could not be ignored. The wounded emotions, the heavy heart, my mouth quickly filling with the taste of ashy regret all ganged up on me and the day became unbearable. In an effort to regain control, I refocused and dialed down on work.
Often I seek inspiration from other church’s bulletins, my effort to think outside the box, to see what the rest of the “God business” has going on, which is exactly what I was thinking when I pulled up the online bulletin of St. Nicholas of Myra Orthodox Church in Shreveport. In it was a small blurb informing all that a miracle-working icon was to be traveling through the area and that very day it would be in Shreveport for only a couple of hours. I bolted with no hesitation and soon I walked through the door of St. Nicholas.
The priest recognized me as a visitor, welcomed me, and gave me information on this icon, known as the Kursk Root Icon, the single most beautiful item I had ever seen; sky blue enamelwork and ornate trim framed the blessed Mother and child whose eyes seemed to rest on me alone.
Suddenly the weight of this burden was completely unwelcome. I asked, begged, entreated, the Blessed Mother to help ease it. Concentrating on the sound of my breathing, an image formed in my mind’s eye-a strong, thick, green stem with tiny leaves growing from it. The whole image was vibrant with life and was glowing and slightly backlit. I would unpack this symbolism later but for now, I felt a smile break across my face and I held the image there gazing upon it, feeling peace being restored to my soul, my mind and my heart.
I cannot know how long or short a time I sat this way. When I opened my eyes the icon seemed to beckon me, this time I did not hesitate. The peace I felt remained with me throughout the day, for weeks and several months. The icon’s beauty, however, remains. This is what I wanted to bring home from Russia. I searched high and low and showed the image via screenshot on my phone to everyone. No one seemed to have seen or even heard of it before.
One of our last tours was to the oldest active monastery in Russia, Sergei Posad. I asked the tour guide if she had ever seen this icon. She immediately turned to our local guide and I saw a smile of recognition fall over the woman’s face. Yes, she knew the icon. It was dear to the hearts of Russian Orthodox in countries outside of Russia, very popular she said. I asked if she knew if I might find it and she smiled and said perhaps–ask in the shops. Later, we were given “free time” to shop or explore or walk around with our mouths hanging open, slack-jawed at the immensity of Russia’s beauty and stumble from one gilded onion dome to the next. I ducked into one of the shops. No luck. Then like Hansel and Gretel, I followed a breadcrumb trail to the next shop which was stuffed with icons of all shapes, sizes, and prices. I had nothing to lose with yet another inquiry “Do you have this icon?” I offered my phone with the screenshot of the longed-for icon. “Da Da. Yes.” “Spasiba-thank you,” I said. And there it was, the same beautiful image which haunted my prayers.
At home, I hung my new icons on my “icon wall.” Prayers of thanksgiving floated around me. Not only for the appreciation of icons and their whispered lessons but also gratitude for the faith of the people who still engage in this timeless practice. The iconographer writes the icon, as the creative process is called. Icons are a window into heaven, the doorway to the mystery. The icons have my full attention now; no longer are they too much. Instead, they center me, reminding me of the sacred wonder. Please God, never let me lose that. AMEN.
“In your presence, there is fullness of joy.” Psalm 16