One of the conundrums in being a Catholic iconographer is the lack of understanding and traditions around the veneration of icons within our church. So often images are understood only as decoration of a space in the Western church. There is more concern about whether the colors go with the carpet than with the intent and meaning of the icon, or with integrating it with prayer. This is vastly different from the place of the icon in the Eastern churches–they are a vital, integral part of liturgy and worship, both communally and privately.
I was so happy to see this superficial interpretation of visual artwork was transcended at the Trappist Abbey where I recently went on retreat. The Abbey is dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, an image close to the heart of many American peoples, and a huge icon of her is on the southern wall of the church.
After the prayers of compline, in the hushed and dimly lit church, candles are lit before this holy image of Mary. The monks line up 2 by 2 before her. Elderly monks from the infirmary are brought in wheelchairs to be present to honor our Blessed Mother. The entire community gathers before her, gazing toward the image, singing hymns of praise. This prayertime resembles the Akathist prayers to the Mother of God that are said and sung in the Eastern churches to her. The monks then each bow before her, then file out past a font, where the abbot stands, blessing each of them with holy water. We retreatants follow behind, receiving our own nighttime blessing from the abbot. What a beautiful way to end the day.
It is a deeply personal, heartfelt time, this honoring of Mary with voice, gesture, song. My meager description does not do it justice. Nor did I photograph it, as the clicking of shutters and the emotional withdrawal needed to frame compositions and adjust settings are too disruptive for the intimacy, reverence, and beauty of this holy moment.