Reflection Masthead
Issue 153 - Icons and Images - May 2017

We traveled to Russia earlier this month (May 9-20), and spent much of our time visiting churches and museums, viewing icons and other religious art. 
Upon our return, we led a retreat (May 26-29) for the Benedictine Sisters and Oblates 
of St. Scholastica Monastery in Boerne, Texas. 
The theme for the retreat was 
"Gazing into the Face of Jesus: Praying with Icons and Images."
Our reflections this issue draw from those experiences.
Emptying a Space for God 
Ustyug Annunciation
The Ustyug Annunciation (early 12 th century) is not the most famous icon in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery, but, for me, it is one of the most striking. First, because of its size: the wooden panel stands nearly eight feet tall.  The design is simple, omitting other figures and architectural background. We see only the Angel Gabriel informing Mary that she is to bear a son who will be the savior of the world - informing Mary that she is to be, as the Eastern Orthodox put it (see last issue), the Mother of God.
The design is simple - except for one subtle, and stunning, detail. On Mary's torso, framed by her right hand, there is a faint shape that may, at first glance, appear to be simply the pattern of her robe. A second glance reveals it to be a faint image of the infant Christ, already formed within her, at the moment she says, "Let it be to me according to your word."
Greek Orthodox scholar Fr. Maximos Constas offers a challenging commentary on this
imagery: "Whereas Christ's consent to 'assume the form of the slave' (Phil 2: 7) was a self-emptying of his power and infinity into the circumscription of the flesh, Mary's consent to open her sealed body to the presence of the infinite is her kenotic [self-emptying] act.... This is the great risk involved in surrendering oneself to God. This is the risk of unsealing the self, of consenting to have the chamber of the heart host another's presence. The unsealing of love is a form of kenosis, an emptying of the self, a making of space within the womb of one's being for another to reside."
I gaze at the icon, and see Mary's eyes gazing back at me, as if to ask, "How will you, Bill, make space within your being for God's presence to reside?"

                                   --by Bill 

In Russia, one of our fellow travelers asked the local tour guide, "How do you know where you are going? There are no signs and no images, but only the names of the stores." We are so used to images and icons, we don't even need the names McDonalds, Starbucks, or Target. Rather, we see the golden arches, the green super mermaid, or red and white circles around a red dot.
These days we communicate with images in business, on our phones, and in the media as if the images or icons had a life of their own. In a way, they do. For some of us, icons can leave us speechless. In other situations, icons open us up to conversation with the subjects themselves - live as in Face Time, silently as conversing with a picture of a deceased beloved one, or prayerfully as considering a sacred image of Jesus or other Holy One.
Speechless Poster
On the way to Russia, I saw a poster in the Warsaw airport with the word, "Speechless." It was advertising an exhibit of icons; it turned out to be a premonition of what I experienced in the grand cathedrals, churches, and museums of Russia. Standing before Andrei Rublev's "Trinity" and the Vladimir "Theotokos" in Moscow and Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son" in St. Petersburg left me speechless; even today I have no words for what I felt in the presence of those images which have been prayed with for centuries in all corners of the world. Well, only one word: "Awe."
After leading the retreat last weekend, "Gazing into the Face of Jesus: Praying with Icons and Images" for the Benedictines, I am beginning to sort through some feelings. I am noticing that some images such as the Facebook single "f", the Nike "swoosh", and the Apple bitten fruit seem static and even off-putting. Whereas, images in the religious icons appear to tell a story, are engaging, and have an energy about them.
My recent experiences have raised my awareness to the power of advertising, art, beauty, and religious significance. Which images and icons draw you? Which are off-putting? Which have meaning? Which leave you speechless?

                                           - by Jan


Bill Howden and Jan Davis
Soul Windows Ministries



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