This past summer I was blessed to be able to attend an icon workshop. It was quite a surprise for me: disappointing in some ways, opening new vistas in others. I learned some new techniques, different ways of painting icons, some of which I will keep, others discard. I even heard my first iconographer riddle there: What do you call an iconographer without a brush? (Answer below.) The most amazing part of this adventure was not the painting, though, it was the immersion in Eastern Christian spirituality. My short week there was such a blend of impressions for me that I am not able to form a coherent narrative, but still want to share bits of quotes and moments.
The monastery, a Romanian Eastern Rite Catholic community with a Greek Melkite chaplain, is located in Washington state, near a military base. As we painted, silent and intent, praying with every stroke, there was the sound of automatic weapons fire in the background. So incongruous. It would go on for hours, the harsh rat-a-tat-tat of the guns contrasted with the stillness of the icon studio. It was kind of surreal.
Holy Theophany is a small monastery, with four nuns living there. The chapel was beautiful, and tiny. Attending services meant sitting and standing right alongside of the nuns as they chanted and sang orthros, vespers, the Divine Liturgy. No separation. I felt totally immersed in and part of the prayers. Services were very long, hours long, and the nuns chanted without ceasing, a beautiful vocal, polyphonic harmony. The priest chanted as well. Bells rang. The fragrance of incense rose to the heavens. Icons lined the walls and the iconostas in front. The chapel was filled with color. Although at first I was mostly conscious of the length of time, I quickly learned to see the great beauty of the Eastern tradition. It filled mind and senses, lifting one’s heart and soul to God.
The liturgy itself is very ancient, dating back to our early Christian roots. The Liturgy of St. John Crysostom, composed just before the turn of the 4th Century in Antioch in western Syria, is used on “ordinary days”. For special feastdays, the Liturgy of St. Basil is used. It is heard only 10 times per year, and I was lucky enough to be there for the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God and to be able to experience this beautiful liturgy. The composer, St. Basil, was bishop of Ceasarea from 370 to 379 A.D.
Eastern spirituality is marked by profound bows and prostration as well as chant. It is the heart that is considered the seat of wisdom, and not the head or intellect. Bowing, the priest told us, puts the heart above the head, in a very physical gesture. He also explained some of the differences between Eastern and Western Christianity as coming about in response to cultural pressure and influences. The West was challenged by the “Enlightenment” and thus many devotions and canons arose concerning the Eucharist and the form of the Mass. In the East, these things were not questioned, the controversies instead were often surrounding art, and thus there are many devotions emphasizing images and miracle-working icons. Taking both traditions together, they seem to make a whole, to my mind.
Were the nuns Catholics with a different, Eastern tradition in the expression of their faith? Or were they Orthodox who had accepted the primacy of the Pope? The Mother Abbess thumped her cane emphatically on the ground to reiterate her point: We are Orthodox! We are Orthodox! Certainly there were no differences in teaching that I could recognize.
I don’t know, and I don’t know that it matters in the end. We were one in loving God and worshipping His Son. I am not certain there are too many doctrinal differences between East and West, and would welcome any education that readers might offer me on this subject.
Whatever differences there might be, our love of Jesus is what will bring us together. The icon is a bridge between us, the ancient art of the unified church, leading us all to prayer.
The answer to the iconographer riddle above: A cantor.