My friend spoke at a retreat recently, teaching about the use of icons in prayer. She explained that 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 judge it,” she said.
The quickest and simplest way to create distance between ourselves and that which discomforts us is to cast 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 my own silence inspire her to follow suit. I was more restrained in an effort to somehow make up for her exuberance.
I judged her quickly and harshly for all of the traits I found so disturbing and my judgment built a silent and sturdy wall between us.
In the program I was in, this kind of strong reaction was 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 a flesh and blood 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 may require the acceptance of our own broken image. Perhaps icons disturb us in the same way our own deep brokenness does. In rejecting icons and the images they bear, maybe we're also rejecting the most broken and fragile parts of ourselves.
In this way, icons are similar to the sacred stories of Holy Week - stories filled with human sin, awash with that which we'd rather not see, hear, or touch. Everywhere we look in this week's gospel readings, humans are found behaving badly. They're out of focus, skewed, and jutting off at odd angles in relation to the One who walks quietly among them. Maybe this is why it's so tempting for the reader to cast judgment or, better yet, look away.
“Icons are quiet paintings,” my friend continues, “They're not art, they are not meant to be beautiful. In their quietness, they invite us in.”
Maybe this is how the stories of Holy Week are too.
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.