Iconography and Healing of the Eyes of the Heart – Catholic World Report

Detail of “Christ the Redeemer” (c. 1410) by Andrei Rublev [WikiArt.org]

What does it mean to see God? Are there special places to look, or special ways to adjust our vision so that we can overcome our blind spots about God, or something else?

I spent the fall of 1996 in traction in the hospital, and the spring of 1997 learning to walk again after a near-fatal accident. So I had plenty of time to read, and that included sermons by St. Augustine of Hippo, one line of which stuck with me a quarter of a century later: “Our whole task in this life, dear brethren, is to heal the eyes of the heart so they can see God.

Thus, suggests the great Latin physician of North Africa, we can see God, but it will be a struggle to make it to the end. This, of course, is captured in Saint Paul’s famous phrase about how we see “through glass, in darkness,” but in the age to come we will see face to face.

What prevents us from having a clear vision now? Arguably, the greatest obstacle to seeing God clearly is our propensity for idolatry which, according to the Universal Catechism (no. 2113), “remains a constant temptation”.

In its wisdom, the Church knows that you cannot replace something (idols) with nothing and expect most people to be fine. Human weakness abhors a vacuum. Thus, instead of people and various objects that we tend to deify (“idolatry consists in deifying what is not God”, reminds us of this same paragraph of the catechism), the pastoral care of the Church l has historically led us to venture on icons.

Iconography is commemorated in the East at the start of Lent, the first Sunday of which is often called the triumph of Orthodoxy, commemorating the claiming of iconography after the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 787.

The conciliar decrees, ancient and modern, are invariably declarations of compromise, and the decrees of Nicaea II declaration about icons, because the Church was then torn apart by those who had already come a long way towards the abolition of all icons, which is why we have hardly any surviving images from the pre-iconoclastic period.

Substantially in the middle, with due caution and clearly aware of the risks they were running, but which they felt were safe because their decree reflected “the teaching of God of our holy fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church“, and that this teaching “comes from the Holy Spirit,” the Nicene Fathers went on to “decree with all precision and care that” various pictures of christthe Theotokosangels and saints – including in mosaics and painted ones, on walls, panels, vestments and sacred instruments – were blessed and approved to function as models of holiness for the people.

How should the people treat these images, the danger of idolatry then as now being a universal temptation? The council again proceeds cautiously, advising us to give these images “respectful veneration. Surely it’s not complete worship [latria] in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature. In other words, you can honor an image but never worship it.

Worship belongs to God alone. To adore an icon is to make it an idol at the same time. For some, the line between veneration and worship may not be entirely clear, but the Nicene Fathers felt it was a crucial distinction worth risking.

It leaves icons in an exposed and vulnerable position, however, and outbreaks of iconography were not confined to the Eastern Roman Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries. They will famously break out again during the Reformation, then in the West, according to Joseph Ratzinger’s great book The spirit of the liturgy at and after Vatican II in the Latin Church.

More recent scholarship has convincingly shown that iconoclasm – the deliberate destruction of images – is not limited to ancient and medieval Christianity or even “religion”. This is best illustrated in James Noyes’ invaluable 2016 study, The politics of iconoclasm: religion, violence and the culture of image disruption in Christianity and Islam. Using examples from Nazi Germany and communist Russia, he shows that the destruction of images, even so-called secular ones, is always the prelude to a new policy. (We see this playing out even now in Russian attacks on Kiev, which is an “icon” of Ukraine itself.)

The last quarter century, however, has brought about a massive revival of Christian iconography, with icons now found in many Protestant as well as Roman Catholic churches. I’ve been running for five years now an iconography camp for summer students, who come from afar and constantly love it. This year, by popular demand, we are organizing a workshop for adults alongside the students.

Icons are therefore (a dreaded phrase!) a “safe space” today for those struggling to see God. The Church has said that in them fallen matter (that is, us) contemplates redeemed and fully deified matter. Those we see were once what we are, struggling pilgrims here below, incomplete divinization.

In turn, as icons are often described as a window, they are able to not only see us, but also pray for us and encourage us to run the race to the end as we gather face to face around the table of God. In Hans Urs von Balthasar’s memorable image from his Trinity Sunday sermonwe learn that in “the Castle of the Three-in-One, the plan has always been that we, those who are wholly ‘others’, partake of the superabundant fellowship of life.”

May we use this Lent as a time to heal the eyes of our hearts to see and share with others the superabundant life that is offered to us now and in the age to come.


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