Monday, October 24, 2005

The Eyes Have It

Much has been written about praying with icons and the way they can help draw one into a place of inner peace and awareness of the mystery of God. There’s something about the hieratic style, the light shining from within the figures, and the sense of sacred serenity that exudes from these blessed images. For me, along with all of the above, the eyes are very important, for they are the locus of personal contact with Christ or the saint depicted on the icon, at least from the standpoint of our subjective perception.

That is why I’m a little disappointed with some icons in which the eyes are not looking back at the one who is praying before it, but rather looking in some other direction. I understand that the figures in the icons are rapt in a contemplative gaze upon eternal mysteries, and that perhaps we are meant to simply contemplate their contemplation, being unobserved observers, as it were, in the holy place. Yet there are times (and these may be the majority of times) in which we come before the Lord or his Mother in distress or need, times in which personal contact is essential, times in which we don’t want them to be (even only apparently) looking the other way.

There are two reasons for this (that I can think of at the moment). One has to do with the generally personalistic approach the Byzantine Church has to the mysteries of the faith. We are known and called by name. Going to confession without the anonymity of the confessional-box is not an innovation in the Byzantine tradition. We’ve always done it that way (often standing in church before an icon of Christ). Why? Because in the formula of absolution, the person’s name has to be mentioned! The forgiveness of sins is not an anonymous ritual but a personal act of divine mercy, and you get to hear Christ (using the voice of the priest) telling you—not just some generic penitent—that your sins are forgiven. The same goes for the Holy Eucharist. When the priest gives Communion he says: “The servant (or handmaid) of God, [your name goes here], receives the precious, holy, and most pure Body and Blood of our Lord, God, and Savior, Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of his (or her) sins and for life everlasting. Amen.”

I don’t think it’s particularly selfish to want Jesus or Mary to look at me when I’m praying to them. The icon depicted here is called Paramythia, literally: “she who comes to your side to console you.” I would hope that if she’s coming to my side she’s looking at me as well! It’s important for our relationship to Christ to know that He died not just for “all” but also for me qua me! He knew me when He made his sacrifice, and He knows me now. St Paul, for all of his brilliant theology on what Christ has done for us all, does not hesitate, in one of his more intimate passages, to say: “I have been crucified with Christ… Christ lives in me… I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

The other reason has to do with the inner experience that accompanies “eye contact” in prayer. Once when praying before an icon of the Mother of God—one in which her eyes were looking directly at me—I suddenly became aware that she herself actually was looking at me, or rather through me, as if a window to my soul had just opened. She could see—and I knew she could see, and I wanted her to see, and I let her see—all that was within me: the good, the bad, and the ugly of my whole life. It was not an entirely pleasant experience, for there were things I wished never were a part of my history but that had left their mark on me. For a while I felt exposed and ashamed, yet it wasn’t like a judgment but rather a moment of cleansing and healing. I realized since then that even though God is fully able to see within us, if we really want to be transformed within, we have to choose to let Him see, let Him come in. That’s when the real spiritual work begins. The icons can facilitate this experience. Would I have “connected” with Our Lady in that way if her image were looking off somewhere else? It’s possible, but less likely. Eyes have a riveting power unlike almost anything else.

I’m guessing that if we were to take a vote on whether or not we want our icons looking at us, the result would be: The eyes have it!