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Windows into Heaven

March, 2020

Dear Friends,

For a long time after returning to Christianity, I thought Orthodox icons were a little creepy. The art seemed amateurish and the people in them forbidding and stern---which just goes to show how clueless you can be if you don't know much about a subject.

But now, after learning more about the history of icons and the complex meanings behind their imagery, I've become a convert. I now realize that they can be powerful devotional and meditative tools.

One of my favorite icons is known as the Holy Trinity, which you can see here. I'm sorry that this picture doesn't do it justice---the original icon shimmers with gold and has an almost other-worldly quality about it. But even in a reproduction, it's still a powerful image, one that's regarded as one of the crowning glories of Russian art.

This icon was created in the fifteenth century by a Russian monk named Rublev to illustrate the theological doctrine of the Trinity. He uses a story from Genesis in which three angels visit Abraham and Sarah. For Rublev, the angels become a symbol for the three-part nature of God.

Notice how these figures, though clothed in robes of different colors, are identical. They also are neither male nor female. Their eyes are joined in loving communion, and through the composition of the image a circle is formed, a universal symbol of eternity and perfection. In the upper left is an open door, symbolizing the church that is open to all. On the altar sits a cup representing the Eucharist. The three figures each carry a staff, because they are always ready to walk with us on earth, rather than remaining in heaven.

This icon was the first to catch my eye and lead me into a deeper understanding of this form of religious art. I've come to learn that icons aren't just paintings: they're meant to be actual windows into heaven. (That's where the computer term icon comes from, in fact--an icon on our screens takes us to another screen, just as a holy icon takes us to heaven.)

Icons are created---or "written," which is the more accurate term---by artists who follow ancient guidelines. The creation of an icon, like the contemplation of it, is a holy act. Each stroke of the brush is meant to be accompanied by prayer. 

In reading these time-honored rules, I'm struck by how all of our work would be different if we followed them:
  • Before starting your work, make the sign of the cross, pray in silence, and pardon your enemies.
  • Work with care on every detail, as if you were working in front of the Lord.
  • During your work, pray for physical and spiritual strength. Avoid useless words and keep silence whenever possible.
  • When you choose a color, stretch out your hand and ask the Lord's counsel before you choose.
  • Do not be jealous of your neighbor's work, because his success is your success too.
  • When your work is finished, thank God, and then have your work blessed by putting it on the altar.
  • And finally, never forget that it is a great joy to do this work.
During the Christian season of Lent that began this past week, I'm trying to incorporate some of the wisdom of the icon painters into my own life. Maybe you could try this too, whether your work is raising children, waiting tables, teaching, being a plumber, working in an office, or any of the other myriad responsibilities that fill our lives. If we do the tasks set before us with prayer and love, maybe we all can become windows into heaven.

Blessings on all your journeys--



Recommended Reading:

The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer by Eastern Orthodox author Frederica Mathewes-Green is an accessible and thoughtful introduction to icons.

Beloved spiritual writer Henri Nouwen ponders the meaning of four classic icons in his Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying With Icons

Solrunn Nes, a contemporary creator of icons, presents an artist's perspective on these devotional tools in The Mystical Language of Icons.


Spiritual Travels Highlights:

This month I'm highlighting these articles from my Spiritual Travels website: 

In Vienna's Two Most Beautiful Churches, I describe visiting two stunning places of worship filled with beautiful works of art: Karlskirche and Holy Trinity.

In rural Wisconsin, the Orthodox community St. Isaac of Syria Skete is one of the largest producers of icons in the U.S. 


Book Updates:

The release date isn't until the fall of 2021, but I'm delighted to announce that Westminster John Knox Press will publish my next book, The Soul of the Family Tree: A Pilgrimage Through Spiritual DNA (a title that may be tweaked). It's about tracing my Scandinavian roots and the spiritual lessons to be gained from genealogy. Added bonus: Vikings!

My 2017 book Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper is an exploration of places that have helped me come to terms with mortality. Click on Hope Near the Exit to hear an interview that Hal Hayek of Christ Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, did with me about the book.

My 2015 book, Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God is a memoir told through trips to a dozen holy sites around the world. 


Coming Up:

Speaker at Writing for Your Life Conference with Barbara Brown Taylor: Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 27-28

Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She's the author of Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world. 
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