Icons - a path to Contemplation, part 1
It is not by accident that we have chosen the Icon of the Transfiguration, written by Theophan the Greek, for our sharing at this gathering. All ancient tradition saw in the Prayer of Jesus on the mountain, depicted in this Icon, the blue print for contemplative life. In the exhortation Vita Consecrata, Pope John Paul II invites us, consecrated religious, to contemplate the transfigured face of Jesus.
In The Eastern theological tradition, man is seen to be on a mystical journey that leads to “Theosis” or deification. Icons represent this union between God and man. The Icon is a manifestation of the presence of God. It draws and brings us into this Presence so that we can experience God in our soul. In this way we become a living icon of God.
For Byzantine theology, the Transfiguration as a “Teofania”, theophany, is on the one hand, a key to the understanding of the Divinity of Christ, and on the other, it is a very concrete model for the spiritual transformation of man.
The Transfiguration has taken a central place in the mystical theology of Byzantine’s monastic world. Whatever method of meditation the monks used, its purpose was always to lead to enlightenment, that is, prayerful immersion in the rays of Divine energy.
An orthodox monk and iconographer, Grigorij Krug, says that
“the disciples did not immediately witness the Transfiguration of Jesus, when they first met him, but only after a long hard climb to the top of Mount Tabor, that is, only through the great effort of climbing to the top of SILENCE.”
Or, as we would say, entering into the depths of silence.
In Vita Consecrata we read :
"We must confess that we all have need of this silence, filled with the presence of him who is adored : in theology, so as to exploit fully its own sapiential and spiritual soul; in prayer, so that we may never forget that seeing God means coming down the mountain with a face so radiant that we are obliged to cover it with a veil (Ex 34.33); in commitment, so that we will refuse to be locked in a struggle without love and forgiveness. All, believers and non-believers alike, need to learn a silence that allows the other to speak when and how he wishes, and allows us to understand his words”
And John Main tells us:
"All of us have to learn…….that we do not have to create silence. The silence is there within us. What we have to do is to enter it, to become silent, to become silence.”
Silence, as Meister Eckhart tells us, is a privileged entry into the realm of God… There is a huge silence inside each of us that beckons us into itself… For silence is a language that is infinitely deeper, more far reaching, more understanding, more compassionate and more eternal than any other language… There is nothing in the whole world that resembles God as much as silence”
Whereas St. Benedict, who has set the tone for the spirituality of the West, calls us, first of all, to listen, the Byzantine Fathers focus on gazing. This is especially evident in the liturgical life of the Eastern Church as the 2nd Ecumenical council in 787 makes clear, when it says :
“What is communicated through the Word is revealed silently through the Image.”
In Byzantine Liturgy therefore, Word and Icon complement each other. Incompetent listening makes us spiritually blind.
“The eye with which I see God, is exactly the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowledge, and one love” (Meister Eckhart, sermon 16).
And thus, we can make bold to say, echoing the first letter of St. John :
“This is contemplation- this is contemplative love- not so much that we contemplate God, but that God has first contemplated us, and that now in us, in some sense, and even through us, as part of the mystery of his Risen Life in the Church, he contemplates the world” (Paul Murray op)
While the world is an icon of God, created and held in existence by Him, man, created in the “likeness of God” is, in a unique way, God’s Icon. So each of us is an icon of God. It is impossible to look at God, without seeing our brothers and sisters as He sees them. If we don’t look at God, then we see only ourselves, and we judge others only by our own eyes.
On the question of how to pray before an Icon or with an Icon, I want to coin a phrase from John Main. He says :
“We must learn to BE and then we will learn to DO.”
If we do this, the icon will begin to speak to us in the unique way God has chosen to love each of us individually.
In the Icon the three rays coming from the transfigured Lord, strike the apostles in three different ways. This is how the Icon writer expresses his understanding of the Divinity. Each person is loved by God in a uniquely personal way. We all receive and accept the rays of God’s love but those rays penetrate each one individually and differently from anyone else.
Trans – Formation
At the core of the Gospel is the invitation to be changed, made into a new person, and it is the experience of that transformation which gives the writings of the new testament their power. This is howJohn Main talks about it, in “Word into Silence”. He has just quoted a favourite passage from Romans 12.2 :
“Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of this present world but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed”
He then goes on to say,
“This is the essential Christian experience of being born again in the Holy Spirit. Being born again happens as we realize the power of the living Spirit of God within us. We all know that we have to change, because we cannot grow without changing and we cannot be really alive in any meaningful or certainly any enjoyable way unless we are growing. To grow, means to go forward into the unknown and obviously, therefore, to leave the past behind.We need to reflect on the words of Jesus “Leave self behind” (Mk 8.34) to understand what we are created for. We fear letting go of the past, we resist living fully in the present, and so we find it difficult to pray. But in the teaching of Jesus we lose self, only in order to find self, and by losing self, we are transformed. What we are changed into is not, as we fear, something other than what we are. We fear that if we lose self, we will become someone else, someone different. But this fear is totally cast out of our hearts, when we open ourselves to the love of God, that has flooded us, through the Spirit of Christ who dwells in our hearts. It is then, that we experience ourselves being changed, simply into who we really are. We become, through God’s transforming love, truly ourselves for the first time. This is our transfiguration. In the heart of our humanity which we fear to lose, we find the humanity of Jesus, transformed by his utter openness to God."
In the Transfiguration, Jesus is not becoming somebody new, but he is revealing to us who He always is, and he is telling us something about our deepest selves. Our real lives are hidden with Christ in God.
This gradual work of transformation takes place in the ordinariness of our lives. As we journey through life we encounter many problems- problems from the past, problems of integration, adaptation, problems about facing the future. So many things worry us. It seems to us that, in order to solve the problems arising within us in the process of transformation, we have to find solutions outside of ourselves. We think we need to acquire information, increase our knowledge, discover new techniques. The teaching of the Gospel, however, is that our problems are solved, and there is no need for us to multiply ways of dealing with them. What we need to do, is to learn to be poor and to accept our poverty. Poverty confronts our resistance to change more effectively than any mere “solution”
Jesus’ kenosis to the point of becoming “nothingness” out of love, is the climax of God’s self-revelation – it is the icon of the Eternal Love, which is at the heart of the Trinity. This is what we, in our turn, are called to become – “nothingness” out of love for our brothers and sisters, as we share in the self emptying of Jesus, that we may be one with him in his Resurrection.
To him, whose power at work in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, to Him, be Glory forever and ever. Amen