Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Reflection: To Kiss An Icon

The following quote is from Patmos: A Place of Healing for the Soul by Peter France – one of my favorite books. At this point in the account of his new-found life on Patmos, Peter is an agnostic moving ever so slightly toward the Orthodoxy that his wife has previously embraced. He finds himself in church for the night service before the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. He writes:

A long queue of local people was waiting to kiss the wonder-working icon. Not having escaped to the fringes of the crowd, I was pulled in. We shuffled along, and as I chatted with people I knew – the electrician, the grocer, the carpenter, the plumber – I was struck by the fact that these people, practical workingmen with no very obvious religious slant to their lives, were doing something extremely odd. They were all patiently standing in their best suits waiting to kiss a painting. What was really going on?

I remembered something that Philip Sherrard, an Orthodox writer whom I admired, had written about Western society’s having lost its way. Materialism had become the creed of the majority, and it was opposed not by the churches but by those who claimed a vague spiritual allegiance or inkling which they insisted had nothing to do with “organized religion.” But Sherrard pointed out that any genuine religious tradition provided for some formal discipline as a means of spiritual realization. He wrote that people who attached themselves to these modern, rather gaseous trends of New Worldism were spiritually inferior to the simple believers who practiced a faith sincerely but with only the slightest knowledge of the metaphysical principles on which it was based.

As we stood in the queue at Diasozousa, I realized that these people, by the simple act of kissing the icon, were rejecting the closed system of materialism in which most people of the West are living today. Even if the act is a formal one, done because everybody does it, to revere an icon is to perform an action which proclaims that the material world is not the end – that there is a spiritual dimension to life which we may not understand and which we may ignore in our daily business of living but which on occasions such as this we can come together and publicly acknowledge. To kiss an icon, to cross oneself, to say “an theli o Theos” (“God willing”), however perfunctorily or unthinkingly these actions are performed, is to strike a blow at the closed universe of the materialist.

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