My friend was speaking at a retreat recently, teaching about the use of icons in prayer.
Icons are painted with skewed perspective, limbs jut off at odd angels and the symmetry typically associated with beauty is often missing.
“The first thing we do when we see an icon is that we judge it,” she says.
The quickest, simplest way to create distance between ourselves and that which discomforts us is by casting judgment.
When I returned to complete my Chaplaincy residency, just a few short weeks after my oldest child was born, a new crop of summer students had joined our small rotation. Among them was a heavy-set woman with wild, frizzy hair and frumpy clothes. She talked loudly and out of turn, taking up too much space both physically and verbally and worse yet, she seemed utterly and completely unrepentant about it.
Oh, she made me bristle and cringe.
I was quieter because of her, hoping that my own silence might cue her in. I was more restrained in an effort to somehow make up for her lack.
I judged her quickly and harshly for all of these traits that I found so dreadful, building a silent and sturdy wall between us.
In Clinical Pastoral Education this kind of strong reaction is fodder for reflection. So I thought about my reaction and talked about it with my supervisor. Eventually I came to see that this woman seemed to somehow be the perfect visual and physical embodiment of my shadow-self. She embodied the traits I feared most and in judging her I was judging the most unacceptable parts of myself.
If I dared to welcome, accept and even love her, how would I keep myself in check? If it was ok for her to be simply as she was, then maybe the same was true for me.
Wouldn’t that just be giving myself permission to be loud, large and unkempt?
I wasn’t ready to let that happen, though, so I judged her and parts of myself with her.
Icons are not pleasing because they often appear to be somehow broken. To accept the image they bear often requires the acceptance also of our own broken image. We are afraid to look at them just as we are afraid to look at our own deep brokenness, in rejecting them and the image they bear, we reject also the most broken and fragile parts of ourselves.
There is much brokenness to be observed in the sacred stories of this Holy Week, much that we would rather not see, hear, touch. Everywhere we look in the gospel readings humans are found behaving badly, they are out of focus, skewed, jutting off at odd angles in relation to the One who walks quietly among them. It is so tempting to cast judgment or, better yet, to look away.
“Icons are quiet paintings,” my friend continues, “They are not art, they are not meant to be beautiful. In their quietness, they invite us in.”
May we lean in close this week, my friends.
May we lift our faces, our eyes, our hearts to that which disturbs us most deeply.
Let us withhold our judgment on the brokenness we see lest we also judge ourselves.
Give us steady eyes, dear God, as we gaze at your image distilled across the shattered surface of humanity. Grant us grace that we might learn to see and be seen through eyes of love.