Then a second time they called the man who was blind and said to him, Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner. He answered and said, “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that being blind, now I see" (John 9:24-25)
I would like to begin with a question: What is Orthodoxy? You may give me an answer related to the purity of the dogmas, or the correct worship or something of the sort. You would be very right thinking this way. I personally find appealing a definition that I've found in an article of a contemporary theologian, deacon Andrey Kuraev. He says that Orthodoxy is Christ seen through the eyes of the Apostles.
This definition needs a bit of an explanation. In life different people can look at the same person or occurrence and understand it differently. Likewise, Christ’s messianic activity was seen and understood differently by his contemporaries. Take for instance the episode when Pontius Pilate interviews Jesus in the Praetorium. Pilate saw in Jesus a religious fanatic, a man living in a world of dreams that cannot accurately perceive the harsh reality in which He will most probably be condemned to a horrible death. In the same room, the Jews leaders saw Christ as a threat to their status quo, a great challenge to their self-righteous way of life. The crowd outside, incited by their leaders, saw Him as someone of no value, or at least of less value than a common criminal, like Barabbas. The only people that indeed saw in Christ Who He really was, the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God Who came to save the world from its eminent perdition, where the Holy Apostles.
Of course even the Apostles did not understood this right from the beginning and they did not truly believe everything until the Resurrection and Pentecost. But after these events their vision was opened and with their transfigured sensed they had a clear vision that was captured in the Holy Scriptures and in the entire Holy Tradition of the Church. This is Orthodoxy.
Of course you may ask yourselves now what this long introduction has to do with icons? In my opinion has everything to do with the icons because in a similar fashion we can say that the icons are a representation of the reality of God as it is seen through the transfigured eyes of the Church.
I say this because the authenticity of the reality we see around us is confined to the limitations of our human senses. We can only see, smell, taste what is material, what has the same composition as we do. The sight, the hearing, the smell, the taste and touch are nothing but chemical, mechanical or electrical stimulations interpreted by our brain. They are by definition physical, material. Based on this one can say that the senses, on which we base most of our understanding of the world are, in a way, crippling us in what it concerns the spiritual perception of reality.
Let me explain this further. There is a very interesting book, written by a French author, specialized in detective stories, Guy de Cars called “The Brute”. The book revolves around the life of a man who was born blind, deaf and dumb. To put things into perspective an ordinary person receives 80% of the information through the eyes, another 10-15% through the ears and the remaining 5% is split between the others smell, touch and taste. A person like the man in our book would be linked with the world only through a tiny fraction of His total potential perceptual reality. His understanding of reality would be very different than ours.
In our current fallen state, today we live like the man from this book. Through sin we have lost almost entirely our perception of God and of His Kingdom. Now we see everything like “in a mirror dimly” (1Cor 13:12) failing to penetrate in the reality of God.
Because of this condition we need to be guided toward God for we are blind. We need to rely on those that have seen the light, the ones that have become for us beacons of light, guiding us out of darkness. The ones that have truly seen God are what we can call true theologians. Through their teachings and their dogmas they are sharing with us their vision of heaven.
One way of sharing this untainted vision is through the icons. The icons are so important in our Church that we can even go so far as to say that the Orthodox Church has an iconic vision of the world. Icons are not painted, but written, because they transmit a message of Orthodox dogmatic theology
An icon is not a picture, a portrait, but a representation of a person that has reached theosis, union with God in grace. The icon is a portrayal of our way of life, the finish line of our earthly labor. The purpose of our existence is this to become “perfect, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect” (Mat 5:48). Our whole time on earth is actually askesis, struggle, training, to achieve a state of being that is above the natural order of things and prepare our entrance in the Kingdom.
Through this process of perpetual metamorphosis into something always better and better, our physical senses are transfigured and they begin perceiving the reality of God, above the reality of nature. The icons represent this by depicting transfigured sensory organs. The eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth, even the skin do not appear natural, but have an “out of this world” appearance that underlines this very fact.
The icons reveal things that we couldn’t normally see in a regular picture. Take the example of the icon of Archangel Gabriel, or any of the Holy Angels. We know that in fact we can’t actually perceive an angel through our eyes, unless they discover themselves and change their appearance so we can process it. This is, if you want to use a modern term, a downgrade for them, an incomplete representation of who they are, because we can only perceive physical forms and they have no form or material substance, they are only spiritual rational beings.
Using the language of icons we can however transcend what we cannot perceive through our senses and create a bridge between our world and their world that will help us understand them better. The iconic representations of the angels contain in the details of their canonic depiction clues that convey a message beyond just a pretty image, describing an entire attitude, personality, mission and place in the great plan of Creation.
All the icons do the same thing; they are not reproductions of a painter’s model “filling in” for a departed Jesus Christ, Mother of God, or any of the saints. The icon is a representation of a person that has developed a personal relationship with God and has reached a stage of permanent Communion with Him.
In iconography we don’t use models but symbols that have the capacity to transmit more than what a facial expression can. Icons don’t smile, they don’t get angry. The most I’ve seen an icon do is weep for the sins of the world. Icons keep a sober attitude of serious dedication to their mission in the world: save their souls and others’.
Looking at an icon we perceive a world for which we are insensitive. The transcending beauty of the icon forces a breach in the thick armor of indifference and secularism in which we live and through it we can get glimpse at the genuine reality of God: the heavenly Jerusalem. He is not the reality we have fabricated, but He is what He told Moses on the mountain: “I AM WHO I AM” (Exo 3:14). God and His world is not what we make on our own using our crooked rationality and our blind senses, but He reveals Himself to us through means like the icons that become windows to heaven.
The icons are translated theology, the genuine experience of God explained in a manner we can grasp, in a language we know and understand. Using them we have a much quicker access to God, which may help us develop a personal experience and start to live our own transfiguration.
This is why we pray with icons, not to the icons. We don’t worship the paint, gold or wood, but through their usage we worship God and ask for the intercession of the Saints. The icons are not just pretty objects or works of art, they are instruments that increase our awareness of God. Their place is not in museums or exhibitions, their place is in churches and in our homes, a permanent exit route to the only saving reality that is: the Kingdom of heaven.